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SLIPPERY SLOPE
COLORADO RULING MAY OPEN DOOR TO CRIMINAL CHARGES FOR COLLISIONS ON SKI TRAILS

So you want to really bomb your next ski run, do a few tricks and grab a little air? Better watch where you are going because you could land in criminal court.

That was the message sent by the Colorado Supreme Court when it ordered Nathan Hall to stand trial in November on charges of reckless manslaughter nearly four years after he struck and killed 33-year-old Alan Cobb. Hall had just ended his shift as a lift operator at Vail and was heading down the mountain when he struck Cobb on April 20, 1997. Hall admitted he was skiing too fast.

Hall was sentenced Jan. 31 to 90 days in jail and 240 hours of community service on a lesser charge of reckless skiing. The charge of reckless manslaughter carried a maximum sentence of 16 years in prison.

Ski safety experts told the Associated Press that Hall was the first person convicted at trial of killing another skier - others have gone on trial for assault as a result of on-slope collisions. In 1989, Texas skier Howard Hidle hit and killed an 11-year-old girl at Colorado's Winter Park resort. Hidle pleaded no contest to criminally negligent homicide, and later committed suicide.

The Colorado Supreme Court overturned two lower court decisions in ordering Hall to stand trial. Jim Chalat, a Colorado trial lawyer who handles ski cases around the country, said: "The point is that this (skiing into someone and killing them) is not the sort of thing that just happens. This is the first time the State Supreme Court said it's not just something that happens."

"That ruling is much more precedent setting than any decision in this case," Melanie Mills, executive vice president for public policy at Colorado Ski Country USA, told the Denver Post last November. "The Colorado Supreme Court allowing criminal charges to be brought to trial is really the precedent-setting item here."

"Ski safety has always been a priority at ski resorts," Stacy Gardner, spokesperson for the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA), said. "The impact (of the conviction) will be for the few people who ski with gross disregard for others.

"Ski patrollers can actually say, "You could go to jail.' It is no longer just a ski area issue."

Dirk Gouwens of the Ski Areas of New York said state operators have no reaction.

"The reason being, we felt it was blown out of proportion," Gouwens said. "Collisions are things people have to deal with on the slopes. Collisions happen with skiers and boarders."

That reasoning, Chalat said, explains why in one criminal case brought to trial in New York a ski patroller was exonerated after hitting another skier. However, he said the recent court case in Colorado will change that thinking.

"The Colorado Supreme Court is a definitive authority on matters of skier safety. (This case) will have an effect on other states. I guarantee it," he said.

State ski areas have taken steps to increase skier safety. One way has been to build terrain parks because "it limits areas where kids are jumping. They are designed with safety in mind - within guidelines being developed - and are an essential part of a ski area. They are laid out for safe landings and takeoffs."

Another is to knock down jumps built by youths away from the terrain parks.

One of the nationwide crackdowns was in taking lift tickets away from fast skiers, something not seen in Western New York.

"I see fewer lift tickets actually being removed," Bill Steinbroner, head of the Holiday Valley safety patrol, said.

Instead, his patrollers, like those at other local resorts, give reckless skiers a warning ticket to replace their regular lift ticket. If someone wearing a warning ticket is caught skiing or boarding recklessly, they are then ordered off the mountain. Anyone found drinking or using drugs while skiing is banned from the resort for a year.

He also resorts to scare tactics.

"If there is a collision we let people know - even if they said it's not my fault - that the victim (defined as the person lower down the hill) has a right to recourse. There have been people who initiated lawsuits against others - but all problems have been civil (and not criminal).

"The biggest problem is people doing things outside of their skill levels," Steinbroner added. "People are doing things they aren't ready to do. A lot is fueled by peer pressure."

Steve Barnes, a personal injury lawyer from Celino and Barnes, said civil cases are difficult to prosecute because there is an assumption of risk at a busy ski resort.

"Under some circumstances, if the skier is intoxicated, using drugs or playing games, there could be some liability," Barnes said. In the cases of a skier hitting a fixed object, "we usually stay away from those cases."

The death of Cobb and the 1998 deaths of celebrities Sonny Bono and Michael Kennedy caused a nationwide crackdown on reckless skiing. Some areas started using safety patrols to monitor skiers. One of the programs initiated was Safety Awareness Week, a program suggested to the NSAA by, among others, the management at Holiday Valley.

Ironically, Safety Awareness Week (Jan. 13-19), seven days of increased safety patrols and aggressive marketing efforts emphasizing heads-up snowriding at ski resorts around the country, was a terrible one on the slopes this year. In Colorado, three men died - doubling the state total - and two others were in critical condition after running into trees. And, just two days later, the only death of the season was recorded in New York State.

On the sunny afternoon of Jan. 21, a 64-year-old man from Warren, Ohio, skied across a slope at Peek 'n Peak, hit a tree and died shortly thereafter. There was an ambulance at the resort that day because a cross-country race was being run, so the man received medical attention within minutes of his injury.

It had been more than 12 years since the last fatality at Peek 'n Peak, according to spokeswoman Becky Faulkner.

The NSAA reports that over the past 16 years there were an average of 34 ski-related deaths annually; last year there were 30 deaths. Most of those deaths are caused by trauma sustained in collisions with trees, Jasper Shealy, a professor at Rochester Institute of Technology who has studied ski-related deaths and injuries for 30 years, told the Rocky Mountain News. Of those 30 to 40 deaths a year, 85 percent are males, 85 percent are intermediate to advanced skiers, 85 percent are on intermediate trails, and hitting a tree causes nearly 60 percent.

Rachel Fanelli, spokesperson for Kissing Bridge said the biggest effect of the Hall case was "to make it known that (criminal charges) is a possibility. That just because you are skiing when you hurt somebody doesn't mean you're not responsible."

HOW SKIERS/SNOWBOARDERS DIE
Cause of deaths for skiers and snowboarders by percentage of total deaths.
Snowboarders Skiers
Pct. of total deaths 39 61
Collisions 43 80
Suffocating in tree well 18 2
Hitting snow surface 18 12
Jumping 14 3
Other 7 3

Source: Study performed by J.E. Shealy, C/F. Ettlinger, and R.J. Johnson.

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