Skiing and snowboarding enthusiasts do not need to travel far from San Jose to find dozens of exciting ski resorts. Downhill skiing and snowboarding can be fun and exciting, but they can also be dangerous. The danger is compounded when the resort does not take reasonable precautions to protect patrons from foreseeable harm.
Who bears the risk for skiing and snowboarding accidents?
California law recognizes a doctrine known as “assumption of risk.” That doctrine makes it difficult to sue ski resorts for the kinds of accidents in which skiers and snowboarders are ordinarily involved. For instance, when a skier misjudges speed or makes an unsafe maneuver and falls, courts will say that the skier assumed (or took on) the risk of falling. A claim that the ski resort should have warned the skier of the risk or should have directed the skier to an easier slope will usually be rejected.
Similarly, when skiers collide on the slope, a court will not usually impose liability on the theory that the resort owner allowed too many skiers, or skiers with too little experience, to ski at the same time. Collisions with other skiers are viewed as an ordinary risk that skiers take when they engage in the sport.
An exception to the “assumption of risk” doctrine might be made, however, if a resort violates a specific law or safety regulation or if ordinary risks are heightened due to the reckless or dangerous conduct or inattention of the resort operator. For example, a ski instructor employed by a resort might enhance the risk of collision ordinarily taken by skiers by throwing snowballs at them. In that situation, California courts might recognize an exception to the “assumption of risk” doctrine.
Other accidents at ski resorts are caused by negligent acts that skiers and snowboarders should not be expected to anticipate. In those cases, injury victims are often able to make successful compensation claims against the resort.
Ski lift accidents
One study found that 8% of all ski and snowboarding injuries occur while loading and unloading from ski lifts. Some of those accidents are the fault of impatient skiers who push each other or fail to disembark properly, but others are caused by careless operators who fail to stop the lift in a place that allows skiers to disembark safely. Operators have a responsibility to take note of obstacles on the ramp and of overcrowded ramps. Unloading skiers when it is unsafe to do so may allow the injured skier or snowboarder to obtain compensation from the resort.
Ski lifts and tows are usually safe devices that, with proper maintenance, will last for years. Unfortunately, the strong safety record of ski lifts sometimes lulls resorts into postponing replacement of aging equipment. Resorts place their patrons at risk when they fail to inspect, maintain, and replace lifts.
A resort in Maine made the news recently when it promised to spend $1.5 million to upgrade its lifts. Sugarloaf’s announcement followed two mechanical failures in the last five years. One occurred when the chairs on a lift came detached and fell to the ground, injuring eight occupants.
The other accident involved a broken drive shaft that caused a lift to move in reverse, causing startled skiers to jump out of the lift. Three of the seven injured skiers were hospitalized. That accident was compounded by defective safety equipment, as a faulty switch kept the anti-braking system from engaging and the emergency braking system failed to engage.
Both incidents at Sugarloaf point to the need for established ski resorts to give serious attention to aging lift equipment. Industry observers note that many lift systems were installed in the 1970s and 1980s. Since the technology is generally reliable, resorts have been slow to replace deteriorating equipment. That is the sort of negligence that convinces juries to hold resort owners accountable for injuries that could have been prevented with a timely investment in the resort’s infrastructure.
Resort operators are not usually responsible for open and obvious hazards that experienced skiers should be able to avoid. When a skier steers into a tree, for example, the law will usually deem the skier, not the resort owner, to be at fault.
When a hazard is hidden, on the other hand, a resort might be held responsible for a skier’s collision with an object on the slope. For instance, if a resort employee parked a snow groomer in a location that a skier can only see after rounding a corner, the resort may be held responsible for the skier’s collision with the resort’s equipment.
Ski patrols often travel on slopes using snowmobiles. Skiers typically have an obligation to avoid them, just as they have an obligation not to collide with other skiers. When a member of a ski patrol operates a snowmobile recklessly by driving into the path of an oncoming skier or snowboarder, however, the resort might be held responsible for any ensuing injury.
Other situations in which a resort might be at fault include renting defective equipment to a patron, failing to warn patrons of the experience level that is appropriate for difficult slopes, and teaching unsafe techniques when the resort’s instructors give ski lessons.
If you were injured in a skiing or snowboarding accident, you may be entitled to compensation if the ski resort (or one of its employees) was at least partially responsible for your injury. A thorough review of your case by a personal injury lawyer will help you decide whether you have a claim that is worth pursuing.