Colorado High Court Rules That Ski Resorts Aren’t Liable for Avalanches

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled Tuesday that avalanches are among the “inherent dangers of skiing” so ski resorts can’t be held liable for people killed by slides within their boundaries.

The 5-2 ruling came in a lawsuit brought by the widow of Christopher Norris, who was killed in 2012 after being caught in a slide on a designated run in the Winter Park ski resort. Salynda Fleury brought a negligence and wrongful death lawsuit against resort operator IntraWest, saying the run should have been closed because of the high avalanche danger at the time and resorts should be held responsible for slides that happen in areas they maintain. No signs were posted warning skiers of the risk.

Colorado’s Ski Safety Act limits the state’s $3-billion-a-year ski industry to $250,000 in damages from lawsuits filed by the family of those killed. That cap has been tested many times since the legislation was enacted in 1979, but no jury or court ever has awarded injured skiers or bereaved families more than that amount. The law includes a list of the potential dangers that skiers assume the risk for, such as ice, packed powder, cliffs and trees but not avalanches specifically. However, it does include “snow conditions as they exist or may change,” and the Supreme Court ruled that covers inbound avalanches.

In a dissent, Justice Monica Marquez argued that unlike weather, snow conditions or terrain, the average skier does not have the training to assess the risk of an avalanche.

“Under today’s holding, even a family of novice skiers traversing the mountain must be expected to look uphill, gauge the steepness of the slope, the quantity of fresh snow, and the multitude of factors that avalanche forecasters consider, and assume the risk of being swept away by an avalanche,” she wrote.

According to the dissent, Montana’s ski law was changed last year to say that avalanches do not qualify as inherent dangers, and Alaska ski operators can be held liable if they do not adhere to their avalanche-control plans.