A Durango woman is suing Silverton Mountain on claims that the ski area recklessly disregarded safety protocols after she fell off the top of a high-altitude chairlift platform in March 2016, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.
Silverton Mountain owners Aaron and Jenn Brill wrote in an email to The Durango Herald on Wednesday that they could not comment on the matter outside of what was filed in court.
Silverton Mountain is considered an expert-only ski area, which touts its terrain as the highest in North America. The ski area has only one lift, which brings skiers up a mountain with the intent to hike farther into the backcountry.
But the lift is also used to offer quick scenic tours.
According to court documents, on March 20, 2016, Durango resident Gail Goehrig took the chairlift at Silverton Mountain with her daughter, who was living in Silverton, as a foot passenger for the purpose of sightseeing.
As Goehrig was getting off the chairlift, the chair knocked her off the platform and caused her to fall 10 feet head first onto rocks. She was eventually airlifted to St. Mary’s Medical Center in Grand Junction, with multiple severe injuries.
In December 2016, Goehrig’s attorneys, Beth Klein and Carrie Frank, of Boulder, filed a lawsuit claiming Silverton Mountain failed to properly maintain the chairlift area and adequately warn guests of its dangerous conditions.
Among other issues cited, Goehrig’s attorneys said there were no railings or safety equipment on the platform where the chairlift drops off non-skiing passengers, and there were no emergency stop mechanisms or employees at the end of the chairlift to keep passengers safe.
In a court complaint, Goehrig’s attorneys said she was ordered to “run” to the left on the ramp that was covered with ice and snow, and that lift personnel did not stop the lift after she disembarked.
The Boulder attorneys also accuse Silverton Mountain of not heeding a 2002 Colorado Passenger Tram Safety Board order, which directed Silverton Mountain to maintain a large bank of snow by the side of the lift offload.
The court documents include the Tram Safety Board order from 2002, which says, “install rails or snow ramps on the sides of the unloading ramp to reduce the risk of injury to passengers that fail to unload properly.”
In reply, Silverton Mountain’s attorneys said the ski area is not liable for Goehrig’s injuries, in part, because she did not follow instructions for getting off the chairlift, which resulted in her fall.
Silverton Mountain said its employees acted appropriately, and that the chairlift “meets and exceeds the pertinent government and industry standards” and is inspected twice a year by the state of Colorado.
“Although Ms. Goehrig’s injuries are severe, and (Silverton Mountain)’s thoughts and sympathies are with Ms. Goehrig, (Silverton Mountain) is not liable for her fall, claims, or her alleged injuries and damages. (Silverton Mountain) and its employees acted appropriately. The chairlift at issue meets and exceeds the pertinent government and industry standards. Moreover, (Silverton Mountain)’s chairlift design was approved by a Professional Engineer, in compliance with Colorado law, and is inspected at least twice per year by inspectors for the State of Colorado.”
Ultimately, Silverton Mountain argues that Goehrig signed an assumption of risk and release of liability that absolves the ski area of injuries incurred on its mountain, and bars anyone from suing them for such incidents.
“The release that Ms. Goehrig signed prior to riding the chairlift is valid, enforceable, and bars Plaintiffs’ claims in this case,” Silverton Mountain’s attorneys wrote in a court document.
Silverton Mountain attempted to have Goehrig’s lawsuit dismissed based on the fact she signed this release. However, 6th Judicial District Chief Judge Jeffery Wilson found that the facts Goehrig and her attorneys alleged established grounds for a trial on reckless conduct that would negate any release the Durango woman signed.
“Colorado law is clear and has been for decades that when an entity acts recklessly, any release is invalid,” Klein wrote in an email to the Herald. “It is against public policy in Colorado to uphold a release when the entity who has obtained the release has acted recklessly.”
A tentative court date is set for September 2018 in San Juan County, but Klein said they are trying to move the trial outside of the county to get a larger jury pool other than the small mountain town of about 600 people.
Attempts to reach Goehrig were unsuccessful Wednesday. According to a GoFundMe page set up to help cover the costs of her injury, she moved to Durango with her husband around 2013 to enjoy the recreational opportunities of the area, among other reasons.
Court documents show Goehrig has incurred more than $1 million in medical expenses and lost income because of the injury.
It would be up to a jury to decide, if warranted, how much money Silverton Mountain would owe Goehrig.