When Are Ski Resorts Liable for Ski and Snowboard Injuries?
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UPDATED: Jan 13, 2016
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Skiers and snowboarders are looking forward to the winter snowfall and to the thrill of rushing down hills that are covered with fresh powder. Downhill skiers enjoy fresh air, mountain beauty, and the opportunity to challenge themselves as they test their skills on a variety of slopes.
Skiers and snowboarders who take lessons and exercise reasonable caution can enjoy their sport without undue risk of injury. Still, any high-speed sport can be dangerous. To some, the danger is part of the thrill. Downhill skiers and snowboarders accept that risk for the sake of enjoying their sport.
According to the National Ski Areas Association, about forty to fifty people die every year while skiing and snowboarding. At roughly one death per million visits to a ski area, skiing and snowboarding is rarely a life-threatening activity. Still, the deaths of celebrity skiers, including Sonny Bono and Natasha Richardson, remind us that no skier is immune from the possibility of a fatal accident.
Skiing and Snowboarding Injuries
Skiing and snowboarding are much more likely to cause injury than death. A number of factors influence the likelihood of being injured, including experience, training, equipment, and — perhaps the most important — the participant’s attitude. Recklessness is the fastest ticket to the emergency room.
Unlike downhill skiers, snowboarders who are injured are often beginners. Snowboarders are more likely to experience wrist and ankle injuries than skiers, while skiers have more knee injuries than snowboarders.
Safety equipment can make a difference. Helmets reduce the risk of head injuries, wrist guards protect against wrist injuries, and quick release ski bindings have reduced the frequency of leg fractures. Still, when better equipment contributes to a sense of fearlessness, it is no guarantee against serious injury.
Liability for Ski and Snowboard Accidents
Most injuries that skiers and snowboarders experience are the result of their own carelessness. Although different states couch the language of the law in different terms, downhill skiers and snowboarders typically assume the risk of injury by engaging in an inherently dangerous sport. They cannot generally hold a ski resort responsible for injuries that they brought about themselves.
In addition, ski resorts may have patrons sign a liability waiver, or they might print a limitation of liability on the tickets they sell. The degree to which resorts are permitted to limit their liability for customer injuries varies from state to state and depends in large part on the degree to which the resort’s own negligence contributed to the injury.
In some cases, a resort may be substantially responsible for injuries sustained by skiers and snowboarders. Those are the cases in which a resort might be required to compensate a customer for his or her injuries. Examples of a resort’s potential liability include:
- Failing to maintain the slopes, creating hazardous conditions that are not obvious to users.
- Failing to warn users of hidden dangers on a slope.
- Failing to warn users of the experience level that is appropriate for particular slopes.
- Improper design of ski slopes.
- Providing instruction that does not include adequate safety information or supervision.
- Renting defective equipment.
- Operating equipment (such as snowmobiles) in unexpectedly dangerous ways.
Whether a skier or snowboarder can bring a successful injury claim against a resort depends upon a number of factors. Getting advice from a personal injury lawyer who handles recreational accidents is the starting point in determining whether compensation will be available for a skiing or snowboarding accident.
Ski lift accidents account for about 8% of all skiing and snowboarding accidents. Some of those are caused by impatient skiers who do not exercise appropriate caution when they use the lifts. Others are caused by careless operators who do not stop the lift to wait for obstructions on the ramp to clear. Occasionally, a lift accident is caused by defective or poorly maintained equipment.
The Sugarloaf resort in Maine recently announced that it is spending $1.5 million to improve its chairlifts after two mechanical failures in the last five years injured about a dozen skiers. One lift traveled about 400 feet in reverse after a series of mishaps that included a broken drive shaft, a faulty switch in the anti-rollback system, and a failure of the emergency braking system. In the other accident, chairs detached and plummeted to the ground, injuring the unfortunate occupants.
Fortunately, accidents like the one at Sugarloaf are uncommon. Industry analysts are concerned, however, that accidents may increase as lifts that were installed during the 1970s and 1980s continue to age. Sugarloaf’s action should send a message to ski resort owners that they need to modernize their infrastructure rather than placing the safety of their customers at risk by relying on systems that are increasingly likely to fail.