DENVER — Colorado's highest court heard arguments Tuesday on whether ski resorts are liable for avalanches within their boundaries — a question with potentially far-reaching implications for the state's $3 billion-a-year ski industry.
The case involves Christopher Norris, a 28-year-old who died of asphyxiation in 2012 after he was buried in an avalanche at Winter Park. His widow sued Winter Park's operator, Intrawest, arguing the resort should have closed the area where the slide happened.
An attorney for Norris' family told justices that resorts have a responsibility to protect skiers from avalanches because they know where slides historically happen.
"The ski area operators are intimately familiar where they occur," James Garrett Heckbert said.
Lower courts have sided with the resort, noting state law says skiers willingly take a risk on the slopes. Other states with skiing, including Utah and Oregon, have similar laws aimed at protecting resorts from liability.
Colorado's law doesn't specifically mention avalanches as one of the inherent dangers skiers face, but an attorney for the resort noted that factors that contribute to avalanches — extreme terrain, changing weather conditions, and snow — are all listed as risks.
"If the General Assembly had wanted to exempt avalanches resulting from new snowfall on certain steep terrain from the scope of the inherent dangers and risks they would've done so explicitly," Peter Winterson Rietz said.
A state Supreme Court ruling could take months.
The Colorado Court of Appeals said in its ruling favoring Intrawest that the avalanche was caused by new snowfall, weak and unstable snowpack, and a steep slope, all circumstances covered under state law.
Colorado passed the Ski Safety Act in 1979 to "establish reasonable safety standards for the operation of ski areas and for the skiers using them," lawmakers who crafted the bill said at the time. The law does not exempt resorts from liability for injuries caused by ski lifts, nor does it make resorts immune from damages resulting from negligence. The Norris lawsuit is testing that.
The Ski Safety Act caps damages from lawsuits against resorts at $250,000. Lawsuits over the years have never succeeded in convincing courts or juries to award more than that to injured skiers or families who lost a loved one.
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