Teen Paralyzed From Chairlift Fall at Colorado Ski Resort is Unlikely to Succeed in Challenging Colorado Ski Resort Liability

By Jeffrey Chmay, Staff Writer 

Photo courtesy of Unsplash

         In March 2022, 16-year-old, Annie Miller, fell from the Paradise Express lift at Crested Butte Mountain Resort in Colorado.[1] She attempted to load the lift, but was unable to settle into the seat and slipped from the chair.[2] Annie held onto the chair as it climbed to 30 feet above the ground before ultimately falling to the hard snow pack below causing multiple injuries and leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.[3] Unfortunately for Annie, upon purchasing her lift ticket, she waived her right to sue the ski resort for negligence according to the ski resort’s liability waiver and the Colorado Ski Safety Act.[4]

While the waiver bars claims for ordinary negligence, ski resorts can be held liable if the victim can prove that the accident was caused by gross negligence.[5] And while each case is very fact dependent, similar claims have been consistently denied.[6] In 2020, Loveland Ski Area was held to not be liable for an incident where a skier was blocked by another skier while exiting the lift.[7] The plaintiff claimed gross negligence on the part of the ski resort for not stopping or slowing the lift.[8] However, the Miller family will attempt to differentiate their claim on the fact that there was no lift operator standing at the lift controls to stop the lift once noticing that Annie was having difficulty loading the lift.[9]

However, even the lack of a lift attendant at the controls is unlikely to constitute gross negligence on part of the ski resort. Ski lift operations are highly regulated and according to those regulations, ski lift attendants have several options to address skier difficulty on the lifts.[10] Ski lift attendants can choose to either slow or stop the lift but have the option of helping the passenger as well – there is no requirement to stop the lift.[11] Considering the variety of options for ski lift attendants, the lack of an attendant at the controls is not dispositive.

“Unlike all other forms of transportation, chairlifts are the only form of transportation where a person loads that transportation while it is moving, in slippery, cold and wintry environments.”[12] The lift ticket agreement even states that skiers need to “have the physical dexterity and knowledge to safely load, ride and unload lifts.”[13] The Colorado Ski County USA trade group says that liability releases such as these “are essential to providing children with the ability to participate” in skiing activities.[14] The responsibility is ultimately on the skier to have the ability to safely access the lifts. Groups in support of the ski resorts say that ridding of these waivers of liability will raise insurance costs to the point where ski resorts will need to limit options for youth skiers or increase the already high prices for all skiers.[15]

“While providers work tirelessly to reduce risks and dangers that are part of recreational activities, those risks and dangers cannot be eliminated altogether.”[16] Furthermore, the National Ski Areas Association says that ski lifts are actually one of the safest forms of transportation.[17] “There is no transportation system as safely operated, with so few injuries and fatalities, as the uphill transportation provided by chairlifts at ski resorts in the U.S. To put things in perspective, a passenger is five times more likely to suffer a fatality riding an elevator than a ski lift, and eight times more likely to suffer a fatality riding in a car than on a ski lift.”[18]

Skiing is an incredibly dangerous activity that involves a great deal of individual responsibility. A successful lawsuit here would change the landscape of skiing in Colorado and would limit access to a beloved outdoor recreation activity.  To the benefit of diehard skiers, this lawsuit seems very likely to fail.

[1] https://www.skimag.com/news/vail-resorts-lawsuit-takes-on-resort-liability/?scope=anon

[2] Id.

[3] Id.

[4] https://coloradosun.com/2024/02/06/crested-butte-chairlift-lawsuit-supreme-court/

[5] https://www.skimag.com/news/vail-resorts-lawsuit-takes-on-resort-liability/?scope=anon

[6] Id.

[7] https://www.denver7.com/news/investigations/court-ruling-increases-risks-for-skiers-in-colorado

[8] Id.

[9] https://www.skimag.com/news/vail-resorts-lawsuit-takes-on-resort-liability/?scope=anon

[10] https://coloradosun.com/2024/02/06/crested-butte-chairlift-lawsuit-supreme-court/

[11] Id.

[12] Id.

[13] Id.

[14] https://snowbrains.com/family-hopes-to-defy-liability-waivers-and-colorado-ski-safety-act-in-lawsuit-against-vail-resorts1/

[15] https://coloradosun.com/2024/02/06/crested-butte-chairlift-lawsuit-supreme-court/

[16] Id.

[17] https://snowbrains.com/catastrophic-skisnowboard-related-injuries-per-year-u-s-ski-resorts/

[18] Id.

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