Skier, Beware

Vail hits back when an injured woman sues.

On February 20, 2004, Julia Parsons nipped out from her job as a Vail real-estate agent for a quick bit of afternoon skiing on the local mountain. It's one of her favorite things to do, a big reason she'd moved up to Vail from Denver six years earlier. Parsons hits the slopes about 35 times a year, so a Vail season pass always seems to make sense, and she's bought one every year since 1998.

After a half-dozen runs, Parsons headed back toward the lodge. The run took her over Lionshead Bridge, the bottleneck that connects the front west side of the ski area to the amenities and Eagle Bahn gondola below. As she skied across the bridge, she recalls, she suddenly caught an edge and veered into the railing on the side of the bridge. She says the accident was more a failure of balance than anything.

"I'm a controlled skier," she says. "Speed isn't my thing." Still, Parsons felt a tug and a sharp flash of pain. "I knew I'd injured myself," she remembers, "but it felt like I'd just banged something."

Mark Andresen

Parsons was wearing ski pants and long underwear, so she didn't see the blood until she returned to her office and took off her snow clothes. There was a large gash in her knee. The cut required three layers of stitches to close.

The following day, Parsons returned to Lionshead Bridge to see what she'd hit. She found the bent bracket without much trouble. Used to hold up a railing, it had apparently been bent outward by a snowplow. When Parsons had slipped into the wall, she'd swiped the bracket, which had sliced into her knee.

Several attempts over the following months to earn some sympathy and help with her medical bills from Vail led nowhere, so Parsons contacted a lawyer. A skier for more than twenty years, she isn't naive about the sport; she knows the risks. But in her view, not attending to a sharp object protruding from a major route on and off the mountain made Vail at least partly at fault for her injury.

In October 2004, Parsons sued Vail in Eagle County District Court, arguing that the resort operator should have maintained the bridge properly, or at least placed a warning that parts of it were dangerous. To both Parsons and her attorney, Joe Bloch, the lawsuit was no big deal -- "a couple thousand bucks for damages, and that's it," he says.

Which made it all the more surprising when, a couple months later, Vail turned around and filed a counterclaim against Julia Parsons, seeking legal costs -- and perhaps a precedent. The reason? Her season pass.

Remember filling out the paperwork for your season pass last year? If you're like most people, you probably didn't give a second thought to the waiver -- if you even looked at it at all. "Everyone's waiting in line, sometimes for a couple of hours, and you just want to get in and out," Parsons recalls. "You sign what they put in front of you and you leave."

Same for those who sign up for a season pass on the Internet. Purchase a pass at most any Colorado ski area, and you'll be asked to sign a waiver -- or agree to its terms with a click of the mouse. But few people understand what that really means -- that outside of "willful and wanton" negligence on the part of the resort, said resort cannot be held liable for whatever happens on the mountain, no matter whose fault it is.

Parsons's lawsuit is a blip on the screen of the ski industry's legal radar, one of hundreds of important-looking papers resort lawyers handle every week. Yet in another way, her case is extremely unusual. Colorado already has laws that specifically divide up what resort owners are liable for and what risks skiers assume when they strap on their boards. The season-pass waiver, however, tips the balance. It essentially holds resorts harmless for any accident, whether the law says they are at fault or not. Jim Chalet, a Denver lawyer who is a national expert on ski law, says he's never seen a case before in which a resort has mounted a legal attack against an injured skier, claiming protection under the waiver. For that reason, he says, "this could be a very, very important case."

In recognition of the ski industry's importance to Colorado's heavily tourism-reliant economy, state legislators have been very kind to resort owners when it comes to questions of legal liability. The first major law that offered a broad layer of protection was the Colorado Ski Safety Act of 1979. The law established that, in some instances, resorts were responsible for the safety of their guests -- for example, placing appropriate signs warning of hazards such as man-made and terrain features.

Yet the law also advised skiers that they were undertaking a risky endeavor. A warning appears on the back of every lift ticket in the state, informing skiers that they should be mindful of the "inherent dangers and risks of skiing."

Since 1979, the law has been amended twice, both times to the advantage of resort owners. The changes in 1990 capped damages that aggrieved riders could be awarded if their lawsuits were successful. In 2004, legislators again gave resorts more protection from being sued by skiers. Last year's amendments eliminated the requirement that so-called extreme freestyle terrain be identified as dangerous. The new provision also lumped all ski-area property -- not just slopes -- under the protections of the Ski Safety Act.

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