Vail trail map. Vail Mountain Resorts photo.
Testimonies began last week in Eagle County, Colorado, regarding the avalanche death of 13-year-old Taft Conlin on January 22, 2012 at Vail Ski Resort. Conlin was killed in an in-bounds slide near the Upper Gate of Prima Cornice while skiing with 3 friends. He did not appear to be carrying any avalanche safety gear when he was caught.
Conlin’s parents, Louise H. Ingalls and Steve Conlin, are suing Vail as a “direct and proximal result” of Vail’s negligence that resulted in their son’s death, according to a District Court order courtesy of Chalat Law ski attorney Evan Banker. Damages include but are not limited to the pain, suffering, grief, funeral expenses and emotional stress that followed the death of their child.
In the coming weeks, the jury will decide whether Vail is responsible for the boy’s death, or if the trail was indeed sufficiently marked off. The dispute is regarding proper signage: prior to Conlin’s fatal run, ski patrollers closed off the Upper Gate of Prima Cornice due to avalanche risks. But 13-year-old Conlin hiked up from the open lower gate to get to the higher access point of the trail, and was killed in the resulting in-bounds slide.
Google Earth view of avalanche location. Colorado Avalanche Info Center photo.
“No one is saying that Vail failed to do avy control,” said ski attorney Evan Banker. “The problem was once they decided that Prima Cornice was too dangerous to ski, they ought to have closed all of the access gates. The dispute is whether the lower gate is an access gate for the upper one or not.”
In a June 12, 2018 article by the Summit Daily, Vail resort’s lead attorney Hugh Gottschalk stated that an area is open to skiing so long as gravity can get you there, per Vail’s terrain management. However, this is not explicitly outlined in Vail’s Mountain Safety Program.
According to the court order, the entire Prima Cornice trail could be, and regularly was, accessed through the Lower Gate of the trail, as the entrances are separated by only a few hundred feet vertically and about 500 feet horizontally.
View of the slide on 02/22/12, down slope. Colorado Avalanche Info Center photo.
“There is apparent evidence to suggest that Vail may have been aware of this and, despite this knowledge, did not close off access to the entirety of Prima Cornice from the Lower Gate,” according to another court order from the case.
The order additionally stated that Vail ski patrol's intent was for the portion of the trail between the Upper and Lower entrance gates to be inaccessible and closed off to recreation, yet Conlin accessed the trail from the Lower Gate and hiked back up, as had been done before.
Due to all of the discrete laws that are actionable in this specific case, the Colorado Ski Safety Act is heavily influencing the case. The SSA is in place “to further define the legal responsibilities of ski area operators and their agents and employees; to define the responsibilities of skiers using such ski areas; and to define the rights and liabilities existing between the skier and the ski area operator and between skiers.”
In order to win the case, Plaintiffs Ingalls and Conlin must establish that the Ski Safety Act was breached by Vail through a lack of proper signage, according to the first mentioned court order.