Parents Tell Lawmakers Colorado Ski Lift Operators Lack Accountability

Apr 24, 2019

Parents concerned about ski lift safety have been testifying at the Capitol in recent weeks. They're joined by lawyers in recommending that operator attention can be a factor in injuries, especially among small children.

Their efforts come after a 6-year-old girl was hospitalized earlier this year after falling 29 feet at the Eldora Mountain Resort. A group of moms in Boulder started a group called Parents for Safe Skiing and Riding to advocate for families who ski. Co-founder Larisa Wilder told lawmakers during a hearing last week that resorts should be legally required to do more to ensure people, particularly children, are safely boarded onto lifts.

"Chairlifts are not like escalators or elevators," Wilder said. "They are dependent upon competent human operation. There is confusion about whose responsibility it is to regulate operations of a chairlift."

Her testimony to the House Transportation and Local Government Committee came as part of a rare sunset process for the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board, the agency that ensures lifts around the state are safe. Lawmakers are poised to renew the board's authority for the coming 11 years, along with some housekeeping changes.

Wilder and ski injury attorneys want more and are pressing for changes that would increase the the board's ability to discipline resorts if chairlift operators neglect the safety of passengers.

The current standard for discipline is in cases when operators willfully and wantonly disregard safety. Attorney Evan Banker with the Chalat, Hatten, Banker firm told lawmakers changing to a negligence standard "would allow the board discretion to take remedial action for rule violations without the additional burden of requiring the board to prove a deliberate decision to actively disregard the rules that the willful and wanton standard demands."

"The (willful and wanton) standard is very high and difficult to prove," he added. "It's too high a burden to adequately protect the public."

Last month, a KUNC investigation into ski safety found that resorts don't have to report most injuries on their slopes. The only injuries they are required to report are those that happen during chairlift rides. KUNC filed a request with the tramway board under the Colorado Open Records Act to obtain that information.

Between January 2013 and March 2018, 74 people fell or slipped from chairlifts at resorts around the state - about a third of them were children. In almost all cases, resorts found passengers to be in "error," or responsible for their own injuries, even in the case of a 3-year-old.

A spokesman for the tramway board told KUNC at the time that the agency's focus is limited to the "structure and mechanics of the lift."

Vail Resorts and trade group Colorado Ski Country USA are closely watching the tramway board's sunset process, which is embodied in Senate Bill 159. Between them, the two organizations said they represent all the resorts in Colorado.

Melanie Mills with Ski Country told lawmakers that chairlifts are already highly regulated to assure safety. She argued for no changes. The current willful-wanton standard, she added, "is appropriate when the board is looking at conduct over and above everything that's already required in statute, regulation, order and protecting public safety and welfare."

Lawmakers unanimously approved the bill without changing that standard and the bill is expected to pass without major changes.

That left those advocating for change looking for their next chance to talk to lawmakers about their concerns for safety on chairlifts, as well as elsewhere on the slopes. Such conversations will probably occur after the Legislature adjourns for the year on May 3.