Court Rules Avalanches Risk of Skiing

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled that avalanches are an inherent risk of skiing and fall under the state’s liability-limiting Ski Safety Act. In a 5-2 decision, the court agreed that avalanches result from changing snow conditions, changing weather, and variations of steepness and terrain, all of which are specifically noted in the Ski Safety Act.

manaslu avalanche

The decision stemmed from a suit brought against Winter Park resort following a death in 2012 caused by an inbounds avalanche. The family of the deceased argued that the area knew avalanche danger was high, and should have closed the terrain. The family was seeking damages above the $250,000 limit set by the Act. The area claimed that the Act’s description of the inherent risks of skiing and riding, such as changeable terrain, weather, and snow conditions, are all elements that contribute to avalanches, which makes avalanches covered by the statute.

In the court’s decision, it cited the snow conditions clause in the act. “The phrase ‘snow conditions as they exist or may change’ encompasses avalanches that occur within the bounds of a ski resort. The statute also contemplates that the snow conditions ‘may change.’ One obvious way in which a snow condition ‘may change’ is through the movement of the snow, including by wind and gravity. And at its core, an avalanche is moving snow caused by gravity.” The majority rejected the argument of dissenting judge Monica Márquez, who termed an avalanche an event, not a snow condition.

Colorado Ski Country president Melanie Mills said the court’s ruling recognizes how hard resorts work to reduce the risk of uncontrolled slides at a ski area, and said the court’s decision will not alter those efforts. Vail Resorts’ spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga echoed that sentiment. Mills added that it is too early to talk about potentially amending the state’s Ski Safety Act to specifically include avalanches among the list of conditions and obstacles cited in the statute, as some observers have suggested.

Due at least in part to the control efforts of resorts, inbounds avalanches are rare: Since 2000, only 11 of the 448 avalanche deaths in the U.S. have occurred inside a resort boundary.

Source: Ski Area Management