Dartmouth College’s request to end a lawsuit filed after the death of Christina Porter ’06 was denied by a federal judge last week. Porter passed away on Jan. 16, 2005, less than a year after sustaining severe head injuries while taking a skiing class at the Dartmouth Skiway.
Porter was enrolled in a beginning ski class to complete her physical education requirement. During a lesson on Feb. 3, 2004, she skied into a tree and was rushed to Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. She remained in a coma for the next six months, and passed away the following January due to complications from her injuries.
Her parents, Brent Porter and Mary Salstrom of Brooklyn, N.Y., sued the College in federal district court on Feb. 2, 2007 for wrongful death and negligence, seeking more than $20 million in damages. Porter’s parents allege that their daughter’s instructors were negligent in allowing her to ski without a helmet down a winding, wooded slope that they say was “too difficult for her.” They argue that Dartmouth was responsible for their daughter’s well-being because she was enrolled in a College class.
The court’s ruling came in response to Dartmouth’s request for summary judgment, in which the judge decides the case without a trial. Dartmouth argued that it is not responsible for the accident because of an equipment rental and liability release form that Porter signed. Dartmouth, in its request for summary judgment, asked the court to relieve the College of any liability. The judge denied the request last week, finding that the form did not notify a Skiway user that he or she was relieving the College of liability.
The form, a one-page document drafted by Solomon, the manufacturer of the bindings attached to students’ rented skis, did not specifically name Dartmouth.
“The Release Agreement appears to be nothing more than a standard form agreement created by Solomon,” the judge wrote in his opinion. “The ‘Solomon’ name and logo appear prominently in the upper left hand corner of the Release Agreement in large, capital letters, indicating that the form was clearly intended to release the equipment manufacturer, and not Dartmouth, from liability.”
The College had previously requested in April 2007 that the case be dismissed, arguing that the claim was filed after the statute of limitations had passed and that Porter’s injuries resulted from risks inherent in skiing. That motion was denied in October 2007.
Dartmouth argued in the April 2007 motion that the instructors exercised a reasonable standard of care when determining that Porter was prepared to ski down that particular slope. The judge responded that the possibility of negligent instruction should not “be deemed to be an inherent risk of skiing.”
At the time of the accident, adult skiers were not required to wear helmets at the Skiway. The College began requiring that all students enrolled in ski and snowboarding classes wear protective helmets in November 2004, largely in response to concerns raised by Porter’s parents.