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Colorado Appellate Court finds Vail’s boundary marking not enough to prevent a lawsuit.

Two nearly identical mishaps at the same location bring two suits where the skier was able to overturn a motion for summary judgment.

Ciocian v. Vail Corporation, 2010 Colo. App. LEXIS 1353

In Ciocian v. Vail Corporation and Anderson v. Vail Corporation the decisions from the court were identical. The two cases had almost identical accidents against the same defendant, at the same place, within six days of each other. The parties were all represented by the same attorneys so the court issued one opinion to apply to both cases.

The case involved skiers who skied through the ski area boundary, out of bounds, on to private land. The skiers were injured when they skied over a 19’ embankment onto a driveway. The issue was whether the skiers saw the ski area boundary markers and if they did not, whether the boundary was marked correctly under the Colorado Skier Safety Act.

The Colorado Skier Safety Act requires that all boundaries of ski areas be marked. Colorado Revised Statute (C.R.S.) §§ 33-44-107. Duties of ski area operators – signs and notices required for skiers’ information states:

(6) The ski area operator shall mark its ski area boundaries in a fashion readily visible to skiers under conditions of ordinary visibility. Where the owner of land adjoining a ski area closes all or part of his land and so advises the ski area operator, such portions of the boundary shall be signed as required by paragraph (e) of subsection (2) of this section. This requirement shall not apply in heavily wooded areas or other nonskiable terrain.

In the case in these two accidents, the downhill border of a catwalk was the boundary of the ski area. Soon thereafter there is a 19’ drop onto a driveway. The area on the uphill side of the catwalk and the two runs the catwalk connected were in bounds. The uphill side of the catwalk was open for tree skiing. In both cases, the plaintiff skied over the catwalk without seeing the boundary signs.

The skiers skied through the trees and across the catwalk passing the boundary.

The boundary was marked part of the way on the entrance and exit of the catwalk with ropes and signs. The center part of the catwalk, approximately 303 yards, was marked with nine signs.

The issue brought before the court was whether the signs were enough under the act to be seen by skiers warning them that they were about to go outside of the ski area boundary.

Any violation of the Colorado Skier Safety Act is negligence on the part of the ski area: C.R.S. §§ 33-44-104. Negligence – civil actions.

(1) A violation of any requirement of this article shall, to the extent such violation causes injury to any person or damage to property, constitute negligence on the part of the person violating such requirement.

The plaintiff’s argued the ski area failed to mark the boundary in a fashion that was visible to the skiers as required by C.R.S. §§ 33-44-107(6) and therefore, the ski area was negligent under C.R.S. §§ 33-44-104(1). If the negligence of the defendant is based on a violation of a statute (negligence per se) then a release is not effective to stop a lawsuit. This also became an issue for the ski area.

The court first looked at the statute to determine if the statute was clear or if the statute needed interpretation by the courts to be effective. In making that determination the court’s duty is to “to effectuate the intent of the General Assembly, looking first to the statute’s plain language.” If the language of the statute was not plan, or if it is ambiguous the duty is to “construe the statute in light of the General Assembly’s objective, employing the presumption that the legislature intended a consistent, harmonious, and sensible effect.”

The court found the language of the statute was plain and upheld the interpretation of the statute put forth above.

The court also pointed out statements made by the ski patrol about the incident.

With respect to skier # 1, a responding member of the ski patrol testified in his deposition that he “could see how this happened” and responded affirmatively to the question, “you didn’t believe that it was sufficiently clear that that was the area boundary?” With respect to skier # 2, the ski patrol supervisor confirmed that he probably told her that there was “no way she could have known the trees were beyond the ski area boundary and, therefore, it was not her fault,” or words to that effect.

The Appellate Court over turned the trial court’s grant of the defendant’s motion for summary judgment and sent the case back to the trial court for trial. However, this case was decided on September 16, 2010 and there is still time for the Defendant Vail Corporation to appeal the decision so this decision may not be final. If not appealed and taken to trial, there is still a long way to go before a decision is handed down by the court.

So?

There are still several things to learn from this decision.

If you are subject to a statute, you must make sure you meet all the requirements of the statute. Failure to do so will not only find you are negligent it will also stop most if not all of your defenses.

You also have to be aware that employees are going to answer questions honestly. The ski patrollers that answered the questions that assisted the plaintiff’s cases were doing so because they must tell the truth first and help their employer second. If your case is such that your employees may believe the plaintiff’s claim, you need to evaluate your case.

At the same time, no matter how much an employee may agree that the company did something wrong, that does not mean that they agree with the amount of money the plaintiff is asking for.

One interesting note, the court in a footnote referenced REI’s www.rei.com glossary in its expert advice section to define a catwalk. It’s not every day that a retailer’s website is referenced in a lawsuit as being a definitive way to define something.

For Other Colorado Decisions see:

Aspen Skiing Company Release stops claim by injured guest hit by an employee on snowmobile.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Copyright 2010 Recreation Law (720) Edit Law, Recreaton.Law@Gmail.com

© 2010 James H. Moss

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