Many different groups of people, including the very young, participants over age 60, the handicapped and the disabled enjoy ski/snowboard activities. Approximately 10.4 million Americans either ski or snowboard. Final reports indicate that the U.S. ski industry set an all-time national skier visit record of 58.8 million for the 2005/06 season, up 3.5 percent from last season, and up 2.3 percent from the previous record set in 2002/03. As many participants now snowboard as ski. But a day on the slopes can end in the emergency room, or worse. On average, 34 people die each year in the United States while skiing or snowboarding. Another 39 suffer severe, yet nonfatal, injuries, including paralysis and brain trauma.
When an accident occurs, ski law covers a broad continuum of claims and duties of care. Downhill skiing accidents involve the most restricted duty analysis as claims are limited by assumption of risk/inherent danger rules. Vehicle, snow groomer, and snowmobile cases, along with skier versus skier collisions and other “co-participant cases” are governed by rules of reasonable care owed by all participants. Ski lift/tramway accidents impose the highest duties of care upon the ski area operator.
Ski law is local law. It varies from state to state. Each state’s statutory, common law, and regulatory schemes apply different treatment to the duties, immunities, and liabilities of ski area operators, lift operators, skiers, snowboarders, and related parties.
Most states with a ski industry have a specific ski statute, modeled on an operator immunity framework advanced by industry lobbyists. However each statute evolved differently and typically each state has a body of interpretative case law, relating to skiing. Generally, these statutes establish safety requirements for operating equipment and vehicles, marking, signs and other minimal duties on the operators, otherwise, all risks are purportedly transferred onto the skier. Several states with significant ski economies, including California, have no statewide statutory scheme, although in California local ordinances offer legislative authority.
Some states, such as Michigan, employ an assumption of risk or inherent risk doctrine to protect the ski areas against claims arising from almost any injury claim, on the premise that any injury while downhill skiing or snowboarding is inherent in the sport.
Colorado mandates minimal safety standards for the operation of the ski areas, principally with regard to signs, warnings, markings on trails, which if specifically violated, will form the basis for a claim against a ski area operator, for a downhill skiing/snowboarding accident.
Most states hold skiers & snowboarders financially responsible to other skiers for their negligent skiing which results in a skier/skier collision. But several states have held that skiing is a “limited contact” sport and require proof of recklessness in order to recover from a collision between participants. In most states with a substantial skiing industry, ski area operators must meet higher standards of care in the operation, use and maintenance of lifts, trams and tows.