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.
How to avoid learning first-hand about intricacies of ski law?
Follow these simple rules:
1. Wear a helmet. Helmets have been proven to reduce or prevent head injuries.
2. Take a ski lesson. Those short fat skis may seem easier to turn and control, but if you take a lesson, you will ski better and more safely.
3. Carry some basic first aid and survival gear: a small first aid kit, space blanket, whistle, medications such as an inhaler if you are asthmatic, insulin if diabetic, etc. Bring your cell phone.
4. Carry a ski area map.
5. Maintain your equipment either yourself or professionally. Make sure your bindings are in the DIN recommended for you, and are clean and functioning.
6. Wear proper clothing and eyewear. Cotton jeans and sweatshirts are not good ideas. They absorb water and turn into refrigerants. At high altitude – a decent pair of polarized goggles or sunglasses are inexpensive and may save your eyesight.
7. At large ski areas, where there is a risk of getting lost, isolated, or in a spot where you won’t be seen, don’t ever ski alone, and never abandon a buddy.
8. Don’t ski while listening to music on a headset.
9. Ski sober. Don’t smoke dope, or drink booze when skiing.
10. Obey the NASA code of safety:

  • Always stay in control, and be able to stop or avoid other people or objects.
  • People ahead of you have the right of way. It is your responsibility to avoid them.
  • You must not stop where you obstruct a trail, or are not visible from above.
  • Whenever starting downhill or merging into a trail, look uphill and yield to others.
  • Always use devices to help prevent runaway equipment.
  • Observe all posted signs and warnings. Keep off closed trails and out of closed areas
  • Prior to using any lift, you must have the knowledge and ability to load, ride and unload safely.

If you see a ski area operator employee doing something which is unsafe, like driving a groomer uphill against skier traffic on an open slope – say something to the management of the ski area. They like to prevent accidents as well.

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