On December 29, 2016, San Antonio mom Kelly Huber was killed and her two daughters, Ashley and Taylor, seriously injured after a fall from a ski lift at the Granby Ranch ski area. A subsequent investigation determined that Huber's death, one of fourteen at a Colorado ski resort during the 2016-17 season, was caused by what was deemed an "unprecedented" mechanical error involving the lift's electronic drive. Now, William Huber, the girls' father, has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against Granby Realty Holdings, the ski area's owner, that reveals the most details to date about the tragic incident.
"The event that killed Kelly Huber and severely injured Ashley Huber and Taylor Huber is of the kind that ordinarily does not occur in the absence of negligence," states the complaint, accessible below in its entirety. The accompanying photos are from the document.
Ski Granby Ranch representatives aren't commenting on the suit because the resort is the subject of litigation. However, the ski area announced that a new drive had been installed on the Quick Draw Express lift from which Huber fell and added that it had been inspected and licensed.
The previous drive had been installed earlier in December 2016. It was licensed by the State of Colorado on December 15 and was put into use the next day, less than two weeks before Huber's death.
After the accident on the 29th, an investigative team determined that Huber, forty, and her daughters — Ashley was twelve and Taylor was nine at the time — were in chair number 58 on the lift when it "struck support tower number five and the occupants were ejected or fell from that chair...approximately twenty-five feet onto hard-packed snow."
Granby Ranch ski patrol personnel, joined by Grand County Emergency Medical Services staffers, quickly responded to Huber and her daughters. Taylor was treated and released from a local hospital, while Ashley was airlifted to Children's Hospital for care that continued after her return to Texas.
Huber, however, didn't survive her injuries.
This past May, a 151-page report traced the accident to the lift's electronic drive and added worrisome analysis. Its authors noted that "electronic drives are not manufactured specific to ropeways. In fact, the same drive may be used in hundreds of other industries, from paper mills and food processing to gravel quarries. In addition, each lift is a one-of-a-kind, unique in its design, vertical profile, length, tower spacing, tower sheaves, carrier spacing and type of carrier-detachable or fixed grip. As a result, there are no 'standard' settings for the drive, but rather a recommended range of settings for the drive to power a lift. The purpose of 'tuning,' or 'fine-tuning,' a drive during installation is to find the right combination of drive parameter settings to optimize the lift performance under operational conditions. It appears the new drive was not comprehensively tuned to this particular lift during installation."
The report added: "It is the conclusion of the investigation team that the selected tuning of the drive combined with the natural harmonics of the lift system, along with rapid speed changes, caused the rope instability resulting in Carrier 58 contacting Tower 5. The selected tuning of the drive resulted in oscillations of the drive bullwheel torque. The rapid periodic changing of the applied torque caused rope instability (surging) that was amplified by the natural lift dynamics. This rope surging is greatest near the bottom terminal where the tension is lowest. In this case, the maximum instability (rapid speed change) appears to have occurred as the lightly loaded Carrier 58 approached Tower 5. Witness statements confirmed that the carrier was swinging as it approached the tower. The combination of rapidly changing rope speed amplified the lateral swing to the point that the carrier struck Tower 5."
The lawsuit includes technical language as well. But its more affecting sections look at the incident from a more human perspective — and suggest that warning signs about problems with the lift were ignored.
One passage notes that two engineers, Marco and Jennifer Aieta, who owned a home at Granby Ranch "were skiing at Ski Granby Ranch a week before December 29, 2016, and raised concerns with representatives of the Defendant about problems with the Quick Draw Express chair lift. More specifically, they described an 'intense, high amplitude swinging and bounce [that] was way out of the ordinary and appeared to be a change in operational procedure to speed skier transport.' This swinging and related vertical bounce were so significant that it was necessary to 'hold onto something' to stay on the chair."
Similar observations were made by Soonie Suh, who had taken her kids to ski at the resort on December 23 and 24. She's quoted in the suit as saying the Quick Draw Express lift "stopped and swayed often" and the swaying "would sometimes take her breath away." The lawsuit maintains that Suh's son complained about the lift to a resort employee wearing a "managing director" name tag. The staffer is said to have "assured them the lift was fine."
Unfortunately, that wasn't the case — and the lawsuit shares the observations of two witnesses to the fall.
Jordan Schwartz, a member of the resort's ski patrol, was sitting in chair 57, directly in front of the Hubers. "As he ascended ahead of the Huber family, Schwartz noticed a quick stop and start, and then his chair experienced a big vertical sway and bouncing," the document allows. "Schwartz noticed an increase in vertical movement, heard a 'thunk,' and felt a rattle/vibration through the wire rope line that carried the chairs. He turned around and saw three people falling from Chair No. 58 as it swung horizontally. Schwartz saw Kelly Huber holding Ashley Huber in an attempt to protect her young daughter from the impact with the ground. Schwartz could only see one of the children moving after the fall."
Zach Pappas, sitting in chair 59, behind the Hubers, had a different angle on the accident — and was nearly tossed out of his seat, too. In an excerpt, Pappas "described Chair No. 59 as swaying back and forth so violently that 'we almost came off the track.' Pappas said Chair No. 59 'came within inches' of striking the tower. Pappas said the pulse that impacted his chair transferred to Chair No. 58, which was 'swaying incredibly hard' and hit the tower. Pappas saw Kelly, Ashley and Taylor Huber 'hit directly on their heads' when they hit the ground."
Additionally, the suit goes on, Pappas "told authorities that he had been skiing at Ski Granby Ranch the past few weeks and 'had experienced very aggressive stopping of the lift and swinging back and forward while riding that lift [Quick Draw Express].'"
According to the suit, Kelly went into cardiac arrest after she hit the ground. She failed to respond to medical treatment and was pronounced dead at 10:46 a.m. on the 29th, less than an hour after paramedics arrived on the scene.
Taylor was immobilized on a back board and her right leg was splinted. During the medical assessment, she was noted to have "shallow breathing and pain inhaling; inability to recall the event that caused her injuries; an abrasion on her mid forehead; midline neck pain, which resulted in the placement of a cervical collar throughout her stay; midsternal pain in her chest; and a displaced fracture of her right mid tibia and fibula; right leg pain; back pain and chest pain." She was subsequently diagnosed with fractured left and right first ribs, a lung contusion or laceration, a pneumothorax, lacerations to her kidney and spleen and displaced fractures of her tibia and fibula.
For her part, Ashley was diagnosed with "a comminuted fracture of her left tibia with extension to her growth plate," as well as "a fractured left tibia" and "a severe facial injury as a result of her fall."
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The girls eventually recovered from their physical injuries, but the suit reveals that they "suffered post-traumatic stress and emotional trauma from experiencing the fall and their mother’s tragic injuries and eventual death. Both Taylor and Ashley Huber have undergone and continue to go to counseling due to their emotional distress and pain."
The gist of the lawsuit is laid out in five steps. They read:
The Defendant, through its employees, supervisors, managers, owners and operators, failed to exercise the highest duty of care by:
a. Failing to properly design the modifications to the Quick Draw Express before opening it to the public on December 16, 2016;
b. Failing to properly construct the modifications to the Quick Draw Express before opening it to the public on December 16, 2016;
c. Failing to properly maintain the Quick Draw Express before and after December 16, 2016, including failure to identify the cause of problems reported to the Defendant prior to December 29, 2016;
d. Failing to properly operate the Quick Draw Express on December 29, 2016;
e. Failing to immediately shut down, properly inspect and repair known problems with the Quick Draw Express prior to December 29, 2016.
Click to read William Huber v. Granby Ranch Holdings, LLC.