Denver Post Publishes Scathing Review of Skier Safety

The Denver Post has published a three-part series of articles offering a scathing review of the skiing industry, with a focus on Colorado ski areas and “ski law”. Breckenridge Patrol

The first article, “Colorado system for investigating ski accidents raises concerns“, highlights the high degree of control that ski patrol and mountain management have over accident investigations on resort-owned and leased property.

The second in the series, “Colorado ski industry enjoys protection from law, waivers“, attempts to demonstrate that through effective lobbying, particularly in Colorado, resorts have been able to focus on limiting their exposure to liability through legislation, reducing the need for resort operators to focus on actual risk mitigation.

The third article, “Colorado skiers die on groomed, blue runs after hitting trees“, focuses on the accident and death statistics.

While death rates vary year to year, the article notes that Colorado had 19 deaths in 11 million skier-days, considerably exceeding the national average of 54 deaths in 51 million skier days. One overall take-away from the series is that the probability of dying in a skiing or boarding incident at a Colorado resort during the 2011-2012 season was 63% higher than the national average. And if you were a Colorado season pass holder and died, your potential damages will be much lower than they would be in virtually any other state; and your damages would be lower than they would be for an out of state skier in precisely the same circumstances who purchased a day ticket. This would be true even if gross negligence was ultimately proven on the part of the resort operator, despite the challenges posed by the results of accident investigations being largely performed by their own staff, since Colorado Ski Law strictly limits damages.

One of the most well-known skier safety researchers, Dr. Jasper Shealy, a former patroller at Vermont’s Glen Ellen (acquired in 1979 by Sugarbush, now Sugarbush North), was interviewed for the article. Dr. Shealey is Professor Emeritus at the Rochester Institute of Technology and a principal at Guidance Engineering. Shealy and his colleagues, including Carl Ettinger (Director of Vermont Ski Safety Equipment Corporation) and Dr. Robert Johnson (Emeritus Professor of Orthopedic Surgery at the University of Vermont, College of Medicine), have been conducting comprehensive skier safety research at the former Glen Ellen, and now Sugarbush, since the 1972-1973 ski season.

This series is likely to increase scrutiny on a few fronts. It will draw attention to the relationship of the National Ski Patrol (NSP) and the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), the industry trade organization representing US ski resort operators. The relationship includes the NSP renting office space to the NSAA at its Lakewood Colorado headquarters. The two organizations have had a long-term relationship dictating how patrollers work on resort property. This Joint Statement of Understanding (JSU) shows how patroller work is directed by the resort, and not by the NSP National, Division or Region operations. This agreement limits the ability of NSP members to disclose information on accidents to anyone, including law enforcement personnel, without the approval of resort officials.

According to the most recent update of the NSP-NSAA JSU, which is incorporated in this patrol operations manual:

“Both the NSP and NSAA agree that incident investigation and documentation is an important element of patrol activity. To that end, ski area management is responsible for establishing any procedure for compilation, retention, authorized disclosure of, and controlled access to information and documentation relating to any incident. As such, no patroller shall make any statement regarding any incident to anyone, other than as required by law, without prior authority from ski area management. All inquiries concerning patrol activities or accidents shall be referred to area management or its appointed representative.”

The series will also likely draw attention to the accident investigation process itself, where law enforcement investigators are often the last on the scene when there has been a fatality. The articles highlight how resort investigations are carried out by ski patrol and mountain investigators first, since law enforcement has great difficulty accessing scenes in remote locations. Investigative officials are then forced to rely upon scene evidence collected by resort staff and ski patrollers that are acting under the direction of mountain management. Patrollers may or may not be trained accident investigators, and their initial priorities when reaching an incident are scene safety, assessment and stabilization of the victim(s), and getting them to a higher level of care as quickly as possible. That is very different that a typical accident scene where law enforcement is the first on the scene after it is reported by the party or a witness.

There is also the issue of the National Ski Patrol, a non-profit public service organization chartered by the U.S. Congress, having its 25,000+ members under the exclusive direction of for-profit resort operators around the United States. This special report by the Denver Post has been picked up by numerous media outlets outside Colorado at this point, drawing national exposure.

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