Lawsuits Prompt Push to Expand Ski Areas’ Legal Exemption in N.H.

By Erik Stetson | April 18, 2005

Louis Cecere had been snowboarding for half his life by age 21. But the skills he honed over a decade wouldn’t be enough to keep him alive until 22.

He was snowboarding on Jan. 3, 2004, with friends at Loon Mountain’s terrain park. The park, similar to a skateboard park carved in snow, is full of jumps and obstacles that encourage high-flying acrobatics.

Cecere, of Hudson, was fatally injured going off a jump at Loon named the Tombstone. The jump catapulted him past its landing area and into the mountain headfirst, according to a lawsuit filed by his family in Grafton County Superior Court. His helmet didn’t crack, but his brain was so injured he slipped into a coma and died two days later.

Four months later, family lawyer Peter Hutchins argued a related case before the New Hampshire Supreme Court, representing a woman who suffered a brain injury in a snow-tubing accident at Ragged Mountain ski area in Danbury.

The Granite State Legislature is considering a bill to add snowboarding and snowtubing as part of a broader expansion of immunity for resorts.

Court decision
Hutchins won, overcoming a state law that grants resorts immunity from lawsuits when skiers are killed or injured in collisions, falls and similar accidents. The law covers only skiers, not snowboarders or tubers, and has limited exceptions for negligence.

This year, the Granite State Legislature is considering a bill to add snowboarding and snowtubing as part of a broader expansion of immunity for resorts.

Hutchins considers the bill an unwarranted response to the lawsuits. Supporters say it is simply a logical and long-overdue update to the law.

“We should have done this three or four years ago,” the bill’s main sponsor, Rep. Howard Dickinson, said at a recent hearing. “But we didn’t, because there were no court cases.”

More than 35 states have ski areas, and 27 of them have laws related to skiing safety, said Geraldine Link, public policy director for The National Ski Areas Association, an industry trade group. But she said the laws vary too widely to easily compare.

Hutchins says terrain parks, in particular, are often poorly designed at New Hampshire ski resorts. Resorts frequently fail to do “simple math,” including calculating proper landing areas for jumps, he said.

The bill would give resorts even less incentive to be concerned about safety, he argued. “Why the hell bother? You’re immune,'” he said.

Alice Pearce, executive director of the trade group Ski New Hampshire, disputes that. “Most ski areas do employ at least the consulting services of people who create terrain parks,” she said.

The state doesn’t compile accident statistics for its more than 35 ski resorts. The national association reported 41 skiing and snowboarding deaths and 37 serious injuries nationwide in the 2003-2004 season. Serious injuries include major head injuries or accidents that render a skier paraplegic.

Number disputed
But Hutchins said that number is likely inaccurate. He commissioned a review of police dispatch logs for the 2003-2004 season at Loon that found 117 injuries, including at least one death, Cecere’s, and 52 head injuries, 33 involving children. It’s unclear how serious the head injuries were, but about 15 people lost consciousness.

Not all the accidents are necessarily related to skiing, but accidents clearly unrelated to winter sports were excluded, Hutchins said. He said Loon should explain the accidents.

‘Not that many’ injuries
Ralph Lewis, Loon’s operations director, said the resort is safe, but he declined to discuss accident numbers or active lawsuits.

“We’ve had terrain parks here for 12 to 14 years,” he said. “If you look back on the amount of injuries that we’ve had, it’s not that many coming out of the parks.”

Hutchins has five lawsuits based on injuries or deaths at ski areas. Three involve terrain parks at Loon. He said ski resorts often promote a daredevil, “extreme sports” image for their terrain parks, with Conway’s Mount Cranmore naming its park the “Darkside” and decorating the park’s Web site with stylized skulls. One March event there, named the Jib Saw Massacre series, had a category for children age 12 and younger, Hutchins said

Spokeswoman Bonnie MacPherson said the park has a Halloween theme.

Cecere’s mother, Beth, said snowboarding was one of her son’s favorite activities. She described him as a popular football player in high school who was working his way through college, and said he once sought her advice about a career. “You can be anything you want to be,” she said. “You’ve got the world ahead of you.”

She said all families should oppose the bill, which passed the House last month on a voice vote. “It doesn’t affect Louis,” she said. “It affects the kids that are under the radar, that haven’t strapped on their first pair of boots, that haven’t picked up their first snowboard.”

New Hampshire’s law, enacted about three decades ago, says anyone using a ski area acknowledges the inherent risk and “may not maintain an action against the operator for any injuries.”

Expand to include resorts
In addition to adding snowboards and tubes, the bill would change the definition of a ski area from just trails and slopes to cover any resort areas open for winter sports.

Both the bill and the law make exceptions for lawsuits claiming negligent operation of ski lifts. Bill supporters and critics disagree over whether other negligence-related lawsuits are allowed.

“There’s nothing in the bill that would exempt a ski area from gross negligence,” Pearce said.

But Hutchins said resorts routinely claim immunity when seeking to dismiss his lawsuits alleging negligent design of trails and other attractions.

Some recent visitors to Loon said safety is a skier’s responsibility, not the resort’s. Kathy Fenlon, of Haverhill, Mass., had seven children, aged 6 to 13, on one of Loon’s terrain parks. “I like it because it’s different,” she said. “It’s challenging. You can catch some air.”

She said the biggest danger on the slopes is not the jumps, but the risk of being hit by someone else. “It’s more the skier-snowboarder than the design of the park,” she said.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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