Waivers don’t shield ski resorts that violate state law from liability, Colorado Supreme Court rules Miller v. Crested Butte, LLC

The pages of fine print that skiers and snowboarders must agree to when hitting the slopes in Colorado — waivers of liability — do not protect ski resorts when resorts violate state laws or regulations, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled Monday.

The ruling, handed down in the case of a 16-year-old girl who fell from a ski lift at Crested Butte Mountain Resort and was paralyzed two years ago, likely ends a years-long push by the ski industry to use waivers to shield resorts against almost all lawsuits, even in cases where ski areas violated state law, experts said.

“It’s a sea change, in terms of ski areas’ responsibilities and consumers’ ability to be protected from ski areas’ negligence,” said Evan Banker, a personal injury attorney at Denver firm Chalat Hatten & Banker. “…From a consumer protection standpoint, it’s huge. Because liability breeds responsibility.”

In their 5-2 decision, the Colorado Supreme Court justices considered a lawsuit brought by Annie Miller and her father, Michael Miller, over Annie’s 30-foot fall from a lift at Crested Butte, which is owned by Vail Resorts. The father and daughter from Oklahoma boarded the Paradise Express chairlift, a four-seat, high-speed lift at the resort, on March 16, 2022.

Annie couldn’t get properly seated, and grabbed the chairlift to keep from falling. Her father and others began to yell for the lift to be stopped as she was dragged forward, but the lift continued with Annie hanging from the chair and her father trying to pull her back to safety.

Eventually, Annie fell and landed on her back. Even then, the lift did not stop, and Michael Miller was forced to ride to the top and ski down to his daughter, who suffered severe injuries and was paralyzed after the fall.

Michael Miller brought a negligence lawsuit against Crested Butte, arguing that the resort employees should have stopped the lift well before Annie fell and that failing to do so violated Colorado’s Ski Safety Act and the Passenger Tramway Safety Act. A lower court ruled much of Miller’s claim was invalid, and he appealed to the Colorado Supreme Court.

Monday’s ruling partially reversed the lower-court decision and allows Miller to continue to pursue the negligence lawsuit against the resort.

Sara Huey, a spokeswoman for Vail Resorts, declined to comment on the ruling because the Millers’ lawsuit is ongoing. In court filings, attorneys for Vail Resorts argued that the lawsuit misstated the precedent in Colorado around private liability waivers, which skiers and snowboarders must agree to when buying lift tickets and passes.

“Colorado courts have upheld private recreational waiver agreements, even where the plaintiff could have (or did) point to a statute regulating the activity,” attorney Michael Hofmann wrote. “The existence of recreational safety regulation has never been enough to prohibit private parties from agreeing that a waiver defense will be available.”

“Big victory for ski safety”

More broadly, the state high court’s decision likely ends efforts by the ski industry to expand the protections that waivers of liability give ski areas.

“This was a big victory for ski safety in Colorado,” said Bruce Braley, who represented the Millers. “It says unequivocally that ski areas cannot force skiers and snowboarders to sign away their rights to protection under the statutes and regulations that govern the ski industry in Colorado.”

The ruling turns back the clock on liability in some Colorado ski accident cases, Banker said.

“For many, many years… everyone sort of agreed that when you sign that waiver you are waiving claims of negligence, but you can always still make claims if the ski area fails to do the things it is required to by law, like maintaining the lift properly,” Banker said.

But since about 2017, the ski industry has been successfully challenging that understanding through targeted litigation, winning key court cases that strengthened the protection afforded by waivers and pushing to essentially provide complete immunity for anything that could happen at a ski resort unless there was gross negligence, Banker and Braley said.

“So what this has done is change that,” Banker said. “It brings us back to the landscape everyone understood it to be many years ago. Which is, you can waive claims of negligence, but the ski area doesn’t get to avoid its legal responsibility, its responsibility in statute and regulations, by having you sign a waiver.”

Adrienne Saia Isaac, a spokeswoman for the National Ski Areas Association, a Lakewood nonprofit that represents more than 300 sk- area members, said it is “too early to tell how the ruling will affect the Colorado ski industry.”

The association argued in court filings both that the lift operator at Crested Butte was not required to stop the lift in response to Annie Miller’s mishap, and that liability waivers do not allow ski areas to get around statutory regulations.

“While chairlift accidents within the reasonable control of ski area operators will never be eliminated, they are rare,” wrote Brian Birenbach, an attorney in Breckenridge representing the National Ski Areas Association. “This will not change by the continued enforcement of liability waivers in the courts.”

Source:  SHELLY BRADBURY | sbradbury@denverpost.com | The Denver Post

Article: Liability waivers don’t shield Colorado ski resorts that violate law (denverpost.com)