In-bounds Avy Death at Winter Park Sparks Lawsuit

We all need to remember that mother nature can be a cruel and unpredictable bitch, even in bounds.

At Winter Park, a skier died in an in-bounds avy earlier this year. The wrongful death lawsuit is working its way through the system now, but in order to win a settlement in court, they will have to “demonstrate that an in-bounds avalanche is not an ‘inherent danger’ or ‘risk of skiing'”.

It’s far from open-and-shut, but they may be able to convince a jury. This particular event occurred in-bounds, where terrain should be bombed, maintained, closed off where dangers are high and reasonable precautions taken to prevent skiers from compromising their safety, or at least reasonable warning given when there is an elevated risk.

Trail map of Winter Park, showing the Trestle area

Supporting a “negligence” argument: An avalanche warning had been issued that morning, “north facing slopes with a 30-degree incline (similar to those found in the Trestle Trees area of Winter Park) were at the greatest risk of an avalanche.” So WP knew, or should have known, and should have minimally made the elevated risk level known to skiers and riders that day and for whatever reason they elected not to.

The attorney for Norris’ family cites a generous subsidy (in the form of liability cap) as a possible contributing factor. CO caps ski area liability at $250,000, which attorneys describe as creating a moral hazard, there is usually very “little cost to the ski area if someone dies in an avalanche.”

Trestle Trees at Winter Park
Skier drops in the Trestle area, via Newschoolers

The fact of the matter is that when business is involved, assessing risk is always going to be a “business decision” even if there is no liability cap at all. But liability caps interfere with this assessment by shielding some parties from risk, and the more generous the cap, the more it interferes with risk-mitigation and avoidance efforts.

In WP’s defense, the Trestle area is expert-rated in-bounds terrain with pitches 40-60 degrees and the lifts which service this area only service expert-rated terrain. So it’s fair to assume Norris considered himself an expert skier, and as such should’ve been at least remotely aware that (especially in gladed steeps where grooming is not possible) there is always a risk of avalanche. He was also skiing solo that day, and although a partner may not have been able to save him, without a partner you have an almost zero chance of survival.

What do you think? Do you think Winter Park is responsible for Norris’ death? And how much liability should ski resorts have over the safety of their customers?

5 thoughts on “In-bounds Avy Death at Winter Park Sparks Lawsuit

  1. Death in the outdoors is always tricky. It’s like the argument that if something fails while rock climbing is it considered manslaughter on the belayer? I don’t think so. If WP put out a warning that the area was closed, probably b/c of Avy danger, then you are skiing at your own risk. In this case though, as you claim, they didn’t block off the avy proned area? That’s messed up. You should assume that every skier doesn’t know anything about avy danger and be giving suggestions of where to go and not go. If they duck lines, then it’s on them.

    1. Yeah i’m inclined to agree with you that, if they didn’t have any warnings at all, it’s definitely messed up. Could be the case though where the area has permanent markings/warnings? this is not really uncommon (I recall a few of these even on the front side Gad Zoom/Mid-Gad chairs at Snowbird, for example). OTOH even if there are permanent markers posted, they should minimally be warning people that there is an elevated risk of avalanche…

  2. I know a lot of resorts pull the “business decision” thing a lot. Where I ride I have been caught it 2 to 3 slides i bounds this year. Nothing crazy but still a potential to get buried or send you off a cliff into some rocks. Living as a so called “local” you see the Monday to Sunday operations. They defiantly take more risk when their is more money involved. Questionable days during the week you can bet it wont open. On the weekend. Beat you it will be open… But it is also snowboarding. If you look at the stats of people dieing in bounds due to avalanche it is pretty low. I bet people get more food poisoning from the cafeterias. Who knows.

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