A tragic ski accident left a young man dead and has prompted a municipality to admit that it failed to close a dangerous trail but claiming immunity for the resulting harm. With less than a half-dozen ski areas owned by municipalities, the case has some unique legal aspects.
The city of Steamboat Springs admits it failed to put up signs or rope off a closed run at its Howelsen Hill Ski Area when, on March 17, 2011, 19-year old Cooper Larsh skied through a 20-foot-opening between a wooden fence and a shed at the top of the run. This was Larsh’s first visit to Howelsen Hill. Soon after entering the area, Larsh skied over a retaining wall for an alpine slide, was ejected from his skis and fell headfirst into the snow. Unable to extract himself, he suffocated.
Steamboat asserts that it never intended to fully rope off the run. Although the lack of proper marking may constitute a “design failure,” Steamboat argues that the city is not responsible for the death because governmental immunity shields the city from liability.
Steamboat Springs closed part of the Town View ski run on Howelsen Hill 13 years ago to install an alpine slide summer visitors. During the winter, that area was supposed to be closed to skiers and was roped off at the bottom and sides but not at the top, according to the findings of Routt County District Court Judge Shelley Hill. Trail maps showed that the Town View run was open for skiing, as it was before the slide’s installation.
Judge Hill found there were no closure signs, nor was the 20-foot gap closed. Additionally, she found that two other skiers entered the run through the top that day. At least one of them, she said, believed it was an open run. By creating a dangerous condition, the city waived its immunity, Hill held.
Steamboat Springs has appealed the ruling and the case will be heard by the Colorado Court of Appeals on Jan. 22. For more see Steamboat admits run wasn’t closed, but claims immunity in ski death.