DENVER — A late 2020 ruling from Colorado Court of Appeals on the powers of lift-ticket and season-pass waivers has some Colorado attorneys raising an alarm to skiers.
The court decision in the Charlotte Redden v. Clear Creek Skiing Corporation case, by a 2-1 vote in favor of Clear Creek Skiing, provides ski resorts with near-blanket immunity when skiers and snowboarders sign waivers on annual pass or day tickets, according to some local attorneys.
The attorneys said they now must prove gross negligence to win lawsuits against resorts.
“If this ruling stands, absolutely skiers are at a greater risk,” attorney Bruce Braley said.
“There’s no incentive for ski areas to function safely if there’s no civil liability that attaches to wrongdoing,” added attorney Jim Chalat.
The waivers are printed in small print on annual passes and tickets purchased at windows at all Colorado ski areas. Braley, Chalat and fellow attorney Peter Burg said this decision brings greater risk for everyone riding ski lifts or gondolas in the state.
“I think it’s really important that skiers understand they are at risk anytime they get on a chair lift,” Burg said. “I’m appalled. I’m frightened.”
The three attorneys have handled many of the largest cases brought by skiers and snowboarders injured on Colorado’s slopes.
The court decision means when a skier agrees to the waiver that allows them to ski or snowboard in Colorado, they are essentially releasing the ski resort from liability from injuries on chair lifts or gondolas.
The first paragraph of the Colorado Court of Appeals decision reads: “Skiing is one of the state’s biggest tourist activities and supports not only the ski area operators but also businesses.”
Braley, Burg and Chalat saw that as a key indicator behind the possible justification for the positions of the two judges who decided in favor of Clear Creek Skiing Corporation.
“It’s important that we recognize how the ski industry does affect the economy,” Braley said. “But it’s also important to recognize how it can destroy a family’s life if they are not living up to their responsibility.”
Braley represents the family of Bill Huber, whose wife and two daughters were ejected from a Ski Granby Ranch chair life in 2016. Huber’s wife, Kelly, was killed and his two daughters were seriously injured. Their legal attempt to hold the ski resort accountable remains unresolved.
“We’ve got to be diligent. We’ve got to be consistent in providing safety and security for operations at ski resorts,” Bill Huber said from his home in Texas. “It’s imperative because no family and no two daughters, little girls, should ever have to experience this, ever.”
Braley is concerned the appellate court ruling in the Redden v. Clear Creek Skiing Corporation could impact their case.
“I would be naïve if I wasn’t concerned about the potential impact of the Redden decision on their case,” he said.
In the Redden case, the plaintiff was injured while exiting a ski lift at Loveland Ski Area when she was blocked by another skier who fell while exiting the lift in front of Redden. She claimed negligence on the resort since the lift operator did not slow or stop the lift to avoid the accident.
The Huber case is not the only ongoing legal action potentially impacted by the Court of Appeals decision.
Jason Varnish died in February 2020 while riding a chair lift at Vail Ski Resort. Officially, the Eagle County Coroner determined he died from positional asphyxia when he became entangled by his clothing that appears to have been caught on a portion of the chairlift. Reports say the chair on the lift was in the upright position and not snapped in place when Varnish attempted to get on the lift.
“He was doing something he loved. He was doing something he trusted would be safe. Instead, it came to take his life,” Jason’s son, Cameron, said. “I can’t imagine what he was thinking, you know, as a piece of equipment failed him and killed him. That should never happen.”
Burg, who is representing the family, discussed the potential impact the Redden ruling may have on their lawsuit against Vail Resorts.
“I would hope, given the facts and circumstances of a case like this, they wouldn’t [use the Redden decision]. There was gross negligence,” Burg said. “But I’ve been doing this for 41 years and I suspect that Vail and their lawyers very likely will be waiving the Redden case in our direction.”
The Huber and Varnish families are now hoping the Colorado Supreme Court will review and overturn the lower court decision. Their attorneys want the Supreme Court to incentivize safety.
Both Vail Resorts and Colorado Ski Country USA, the state’s largest ski trade association, declined to comment, citing the ongoing appeal in the Redden case.