Bill redefines ‘inherent risk of skiing’ Patrick Parkinson Of the Record staff
Skiing and snowboarding have changed a lot since the Utah Legislature attempted to identify the "inherent risks" of the sports.
During the 1970s, skiers in the state began assuming responsibility for changing weather and snow conditions, trees, rocks and stumps, and the steepness of mountains at resorts.
But Sen. Lyle Hillyard, R-Logan claims those laws should be updated. His Senate Bill 135 broadens state code to protect resorts from lawsuits when guests collide with snowmaking and grooming equipment, or injure themselves on terrain-park features like "jumps, rails, fun boxes half-pipes, quarter pipes, and freestyle-bump terrain."
Lawmakers couldn’t conceive of snowboarding and innovations in the ski industry when they drafted Utah’s skier liability laws more than 25 years ago. "Now we have terrain parks, which have a lot more potential for risk for someone who doesn’t have the skill level to go through them and do the half-pipes," Senate President John Valentine said. According to Hillyard, Gordon Strachan, an attorney in Park City who represents ski resorts, encouraged him to sponsor SB 135. "Now [resorts] don’t have to worry about lawsuits being filed against them by somebody who doesn’t understand skiing or the terrain," Hillyard said. "They say, ‘well, I didn’t understand how steep that slope was’ that’s part of the game when you go skiing."
Though attorneys testified the bill is too broad, ski resorts won a round on Capitol Hill last week when the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee voted unanimously to forward the legislation to the Senate floor. "It just recognizes that if you’re skiing, you understand that you take the mountain as it is," said Sen. David Thomas, R-South Weber, a judiciary committee member who supported the bill. "Obviously, [SB 135] does not protect the ski resort if the ski resort doesn’t adequately mark the area." Thomas is also a deputy attorney for Summit County. "If you ski, you’re taking an inherent risk," he said. "It simply brings up to date the public policy that had already been made years ago."
But the Utah Trial Lawyers Association currently opposes the bill.
"We are working with the sponsor and others who represent the ski industry in an effort to modify some of the language in the bill," said Roger Hoole, the organization’s president elect.
Manmade objects like snowmaking equipment and terrain-park features are not part of the inherent risks of skiing and snowboarding, he said, adding that SB 135 takes away from the incentive for resorts to maintain safe facilities.
"Those are artificial conditions. That’s not part of the mountain. They’re changing the mountain," Hoole said. "We want to make sure that there is an obligation on the part of the ski resorts to reduce accidents if they want to be immune from accidents."
The legislation must require maintenance equipment and park features be marked or fenced before the Utah Trial Lawyers Association will support the bill, Hoole said.
Meanwhile, Summit County’s ski resorts have been subject to litigation when guests are injured. But visitors from out of state are the ones who often file frivolous lawsuits, said Nathan Rafferty, president of Ski Utah, an organization that lobbies for Utah’s resorts on Capitol Hill.
"People who grow up skiing and snowboarding here in Utah, they know when they buy a lift ticket and go skiing they understand the risks," Rafferty said.
SB 135 updates skier liability laws from 1979, he said. Hillyard agrees the guests who file claims against resorts are often from out of state, adding, "usually they’re out of state people, out of state lawyers." "If the ski resort knows they’ve got a problem and don’t take care of it, that’s gross negligence and they could be liable," the senator said, adding, "you can’t spell out very clearly exactly every situation."
SB 135 also redefines "inherent risk" to include competitive skiers. Hillyard says the legislation more fully describes weather and snow conditions and protects resorts when a person fails to ski within their "own ability." "I generally don’t believe we ought to be granting immunity and this is not really immunity," Hillyard said. "Some things are pretty obvious and if you go skiing you assume in that the risk of skiing."
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