CASPER, Wyo. – A lawsuit has been filed in Wyoming’s Natrona County District Court against the City of Casper and the Casper Mountain Ski Patrol by the parents of a 5-year-old that was killed on Christmas Eve in 2010. Wyoming’s Spence Law Firm is representing the family. Gerry Spence, the firm’s legendary founder, is a civil rights attorney with a reputation that is well-known nationally.
Elsie Johnson was killed two years ago by a snowboarder, Craig Shirley, who also died in the incident at Hogadon Ski Area. Elsie and her mom, Kelli Johnson, were reportedly skiing on Dreadnaught, an expert run, and had stopped in the center of the trail when Shirley collided with them. Kelli Johnson was also seriously injured in the accident, and reportedly has no memory of the incident. Elsie Johnson and Craig Shirley, 23 years old, both died of blunt force trauma.
Witnesses have reported that Shirley appeared to be inebriated or under the influence of recreational drugs at around noon that day. Toxicology reports found, however, that while Shirley had trace amounts of cannabinoids in his system, he did not commit a crime in the accident. The investigation was closed.
Shirley was estimated by multiple witnesses to have been traveling at between 40 and 60 miles per hour. Robbie Griffin, an off-duty physician’s assistant on a Casper neurological surgical team, witnessed the incident from a distance. Griffin happened to be skiing with two physicians that day, and was the first on-scene. Elsie was the only one of the three involved wearing a helmet. According to Griffin, it flew off her head immediately upon impact.
Witnesses report that Kelli and Elsie Johnson were stopped on the icy expert run. Kelli was in a crouched position on the trail downhill of her daughter, putting on one of Elsie’s skis at the time of impact. Griffin and others noted in their reports that Shirley appeared to be taking the run straight down hill without any attempt to check speed, but was still in apparent control at that high speed. Friends of Shirley interviewed by police said he was an expert boarder. Shirley was alone at that time because his friend wanted to take a less icy run, and they planned to meet at the bottom.
When Robbie Griffin returned to the hill to later check out the scene from uphill, he noted that Shirley would not have been able to see Kelli and Elsie prior to impact. There was a “roller” above where the incident occurred that would have obstructed his view behind it. By the time Shirley saw them, according to one witness, Shirley was landing after hitting the jump and was only 10 feet uphill with no opportunity to avoid hitting Elsie and then Kelli. The report states that Shirley came to rest around 178 feet downhill from the point of impact. Elise was 95 feet to the skiers’ right and Kelli was 66 feet to the left.
The reason the city of Casper and the Ski Patrol are being sued for wrongful death and negligence is the alleged fact that they failed to protect Elsie from Shirley, who was traveling at excessive speed. The complaint states that Shirley was notorious for his reckless boarding at Hogadon and had been previously cited. Despite this, he was still allowed on the hill.
One report (below) from Rush Bartlett, a patroller that was riding a nearby lift, said that Shirley was observed in the parking lot at around noon acting “inebriated or under the influence”. Bartlett states that it was reported to the “pro patrol”, who decided to “observe” since they did not witness anything. Bartlett’s statement appears to represent the basis for the suit. It shows that patrollers observed Shirley traveling at a high rate of speed from the lift, but allegedly did not warn Kelli Johnson of the imminent danger.
The Dreadnaught run is a black diamond and the complaint says it had just opened for the season, and was icy. At Hogadon Ski Area guests arrive and depart from the top of Casper Mountain. The City of Casper is listed as a defendant because it co-owns Hogadon. The involvement of the Spence Law Firm suggests this will likely be an important lawsuit that ski patrollers need to follow.