|The multibillion-dollar U.S. skiing and snowboarding industry often markets itself with carefree images of people enjoying powdery snow and sunny blue skies. But rarely does it deal publicly with the very unglamorous issues of accidents, injury, liability and insurance.
A new three-part series by the Denver Post has reviewed years of accident reports at Colorado ski resorts, as well as the ensuing lawsuits, and has come out with some interesting data -- information that often applies to ski areas all around the country.
Informally trained resort employees are usually the first on the scene at a skiing or snowboarding accident. That means, in the event of a death or serious injury, the victim's relatives and even law enforcement often have only the resort's version of the accident.
"And when I get the report, I have to ask myself, 'Am I getting what really happened or what (the ski resort) re-created?'" lawyer Scott Larson, told the Post. "By and large, the average ski patroller tries to do the right thing, (but) in my experience, that oftentimes is not reflected in the final investigation after (the ski areas') risk management and lawyers get to it."
State law in Colorado was established decades ago to protect small-scale ski operations from business-ending lawsuits and insurance costs. But it's now being used by the big corporate interests -- companies that own many of the state's 25 resorts -- to narrowly define any claims against them. The Post reviewed 30 years of litigation and found that, along with the state law, waivers written into season ski passes can release the resorts from additional negligence claims while forcing a plaintiff to reimburse the resort for attorney fees and other costs.
And in the lawsuits that do move forward, according to the newspaper, "skiers and snowboarders are limited to a $250,000 cap for non-economic damages" -- and $1 million for economic damages, medical bills and lost earnings.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins say, of the estimated 10 million people who ski or snowboard each year in the U.S., about 600,000 report injuries. But most ski areas aren't required to make information about injuries, or even deaths, public. And as the Post reports, the lack of information can make it "impossible for a concerned consumer to compare the safety records of ski areas -- in Colorado or nationally. It also keeps consumers in the dark about what measure to take to protect themselves."
The California Ski & Snowboard Safety Organization, however, is helping to sponsor a proposed state bill that would require California resorts to prepare an annual safety plan and release death and injury information to the state.
"If resorts are asking you to waive all liability on the back of a ski ticket or in a season pass, they should provide you with information about the risks you are assuming," Dan Gregorie, a medical doctor and founder of the organization, told the Post.