Federal Jury Exonerates Montana Ski Area in Injury Lawsuit

March 6, 2007

A northwestern Montana ski resort was not negligent in an accident that injured a 6-year-old boy, a U.S. District Court jury decided.

The seven-member jury’s unanimous verdict means that Paul and Deb Stamey will return home to Seattle empty-handed, after trying to make the Big Mountain resort at Whitefish and its parent company, Winter Sports LLC, pay for medical costs and emotional damages the family said it incurred during a ski vacation in 2005.

The Stameys also were seeking punitive damages in the case as a means to punish Big Mountain for what they said were hazardous conditions the ski area knew about but failed to fix.

Big Mountain officials had argued that skiers and snowboarders know that it’s a dangerous sport, and both Montana law and the Skiers Responsibility Code, printed on trail maps, limit the liability of a ski area.

Attorney Mikel Moore, who represented Big Mountain, said the jurors made the correct decision in the case when looking at the law and the facts.

“They recognized there are sports we all choose to participate in that involve risk,” Moore said.

The Stameys declined to comment. Their attorney, Brian Delaney, said they’ll consider appealing the decision.

“The judge has the discretion, in essence, to overturn the jury verdict if he believes the evidence was compelling enough,” Delaney said. “The comments he made on the record would make that an uphill battle, but we will consider it.”

Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell told the jury that its members did a good job of considering the facts and the law in making its decision.

“The parties to this case, on both sides, tried to resolve this in good faith but couldn’t reach an agreement. You folks provided the remedy to that dispute,” the judge noted. “In my opinion, you could have reached a verdict for either party.”

Graham Stamey was hit in the face by the tail edge of a snowboard in 2005, as his father towed him by his ski poles through a congested area near the base of the Big Mountain ski area. The accident took place in a highly congested area, where hundreds of people on skis and on foot passed through to use Big Mountain’s day care center, rental shop and ski lifts.

During the four-day trial, one Big Mountain employee testified that he had seen at least 10 near-misses between pedestrians, skiers and snowboards in this area during the past 10 years.

Moore argued that it was the snowboarder who was responsible for Graham Stamey’s injuries, and that while a ski area can take precautions to make the sport reasonably safe, it can’t eliminate all of the risks.

Even though Graham Stamey, now 8, was wearing goggles and a helmet, his eye sockets were crushed, his nose was broken in two places and his skull was fractured in the accident. He was airlifted to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle due to the fear of internal bleeding on his brain, but recovered quickly enough that he returned to kindergarten 10 days after the accident.

The Stameys had sought $82,438 for the boy’s medical costs, $265,000 for general damages and future medical care, $35,000 in compensation for the emotional distress caused to his father and punitive damages.

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