Judge refuses to dismiss case, says it’s not clear that Vail Resorts followed all legal requirements for signing and closing dangerous terrain
By Bob Berwyn
FRISCO — A final legal determination in the case of a January 2012 inbounds avalanche death at Vail Ski area could hinge technical details of how the ski area manages its terrain, and whether Vail Resorts complied with signage requirements of the Colorado Ski Safety Act, according to the latest ruling from District Court Judge Chris Melonakis.
The Jan. 22 snowslide killed Vail-area teenager Taft Conlin on Prima Cornice after Conlin and a group of friends accessed the terrain through an open gate and then traveled uphill toward steeper terrain seeking untracked powder snow.
Another skier was killed inbounds at Winter Park on the same day. That accident was also subject of a court case that was dismissed by the Colorado Court of Appeals in February 2014. The appeals court declared that avalanches — even inbounds at ski areas — are an inherent risk of skiing.
Vail Resorts attorneys previously sought to have the case against the company dismissed on the same grounds and once again filed for dismissal after the appeals court decision.
But in the District Court for Broomfield County, Judge Melonakis ruled on June 17 that he will let the trial proceed, emphasizing that the plaintiffs will have to show that there was a breach of duty on the part of Vail Resorts that led to Conlin’s death.
“He found that the situation is different than the Winter Park avalanche because there is evidence Vail did not follow the Ski Safety Act when it did not close the lower Prima Cornice gate,” said Steamboat Springs-based attorney Jim Heckbert, who represents Conlin’s family.
“The Court finds that the risk of injury or death by an avalanche is substantial and foreseeable. The burden of placing a sign or rope at the point where the terrain adjoins or intersects is slight when balanced against the nature of the risk of serious injury or death,” Melonakis wrote.
The judge ruled that Vail Resorts did have an obligation to place additional signage or enact closure if it was ‘reasonably foreseeable that the lower gate would be used by skiers to access the Upper Prima Cornice trail, where there is an acknowledged danger or risk of serious injury or death.”
Melonakis said dismissing the case before determining whether Vail Resorts violated the ski safety act would not be consistent with previous case law revolving around ski resort liability.