Close-up Of Gavel On Wooden Desk justice court law

A Colorado Court of Appeals panel on Thursday affirmed the dismissal of a negligence lawsuit against Vail Resorts for the death of a teenage skier in an avalanche.

Taft Conlin, 13, was skiing on Vail Mountain on Jan. 22, 2012 when an avalanche killed him. Due to the potential for danger that day, the Vail Corporation closed the upper gate to the Prima Cornice Trail, while leaving a lower gate open due to its perceived safety.

Conlin and a friend entered through the lower gate, but headed up the trail and over the ridge top, rather than skiing down, when he encountered the avalanche.

Louise H. Ingalls and Stephen E. Conlin, Taft’s parents, sued Vail for wrongful death and negligence, alleging the resort company failed to properly notify skiers that the area between the upper and lower gates was off limits.

“A trail closure must be so clear and unambiguous that a 10-year-old child can understand that it is closed,” the parents’ attorney, Jim Heckbert, said at the 2018 trial. 

However, the jury found in favor of the Vail Corporation. Conlin’s parents appealed, believing the judge should have given the jury alternate instructions to determine the company’s liability.

“[I]t was necessary for the jury to decide whether the trail was closed on the day in question and whether the lower gate was an ‘identified entrance’ to the portion of the slope on which Taft was injured,” Judge David J. Richman wrote, summarizing the jury’s responsibility in the appeals panel’s opinion. “Unless these two things were proven by plaintiffs, Vail had no duty to post a sign at the lower gate, and the jury had no basis upon which to find that Vail’s failure to post a sign was a violation of the statute.”

At trial, the question for jurors to answer was whether the open lower gate was an identified entrance to the upper part of the trail. They answered in the negative.

“Vail Resorts agrees with the ruling today by jurors of the Eagle County District Court and believes this was a thoughtful and well-reasoned decision, consistent with Colorado law,” said Doug Lovell, Vail Mountain’s chief operating officer, after the trial according to Vail Daily.

The appellate panel also took no issue with the district court’s admission of an expert witness who testified that the lower gate was not intended to serve as an entrance to the upper trail because “fundamentally, alpine skiing is a downhill — often referred to as a gravity-fit sport.”

Since the avalanche, Vail began to close both gates together as a precautionary measure or use ropes to keep skiers off of the ridgetop. 

The case is Ingalls et al. v. The Vail Corporation.

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