Understanding the causes, liability, and recovery for skiing accidents in Montana
Following the New England Patriots 2019 Super Bowl victory, star quarterback Tom Brady needed a place to take on his next challenge: mastering the art of the ski jump. He enthusiastically chose Montana.
For Montanans, this shouldn’t come as a surprise. The state consistently ranks as one of the top skiing destinations in the country. It’s home to 14 ski areas, including Big Sky Resort, the 3rd largest ski area in the United States.
What might come as a surprise, though, is that the New England Patriots were willing to let their future Hall of Fame player hit the slopes in the first place. According to data collected by Johns Hopkins Medicine, approximately 600,000 ski injuries are reported every year in the US. In the 2017–2018 season alone, 37 skiers were killed.
These statistics didn’t dissuade Tom Brady from heading to the mountains, and they certainly haven’t dissuaded many of us.
But what happens when a skier is injured or killed on the Montana slopes? Is it their own fault or is there someone else who can be held liable? This article answers these questions and more.
Ski accident statistics
According to the National Ski Areas Association, 37 people died while skiing or snowboarding in the US during the 2017-2018 season. This number is slightly lower than the 10-year average of 38 fatalities per season. Males represented more than 90% of all skier and snowboarder fatalities in 2017-2018.
|10-Year Rate of Fatal Ski Accidents (Per Million Participants)|
|Season||Fatalities||Skier Days (in millions)||Rate (per million)|
In addition to fatalities, there were 37 catastrophic injuries during the 2017–18 season. This represents a 15% increase from the 2016–2017 season, but is still significantly below the ski industry’s 10-year average of 47 catastrophic injuries per season.
|Common ski-related injuries
Ski injuries can be broken up into catastrophic injuries and minor injuries.
Types of skiing accidents
While skiing accidents are relatively rare, a lot of different things can go wrong on the slopes. The 2 most common types of accidents are collisions and chair lift malfunctions/falls. Let’s take a closer look at both.
The vast majority of fatal accidents and catastrophic accidents result from collisions with other skiers, trees, or manmade objects.
Surprisingly, it’s usually the more experienced skiers that end up getting injured in a collision.
As Dave Byrd, the director of risk and regulatory affairs for the NSAA explained: “If you think about it, experienced skiers are the ones who are pushing the boundaries. They are the ones skiing faster, skiing closer to the trees and in the trees because that’s where the powder is.”
Chair lift malfunctions and falls
The term “chair lift” is generally used to describe the equipment installed to facilitate uphill transportation at a ski area.
In the 2017–2018 season, chair lifts transported 53.3 million skiers a total of 200 million miles. All things considered, chairlift accidents are rare. According to the NSAA there have only been 13 deaths attributed to chair lift malfunctions and falls since 1973 (when NSAA began tracking the statistics).
Nevertheless, chair lift accidents can and do happen.
Finding fault in a skiing accident
Just because you’re injured in a skiing accident doesn’t mean you can recover damages from someone. In order to hold someone else liable for your injuries, they must be at fault (in other words, negligent).
How you find fault depends on the nature of the accident.
Finding fault after a collision with another skier
The fact that another skier runs into you on the slopes doesn’t necessarily mean they’re at fault for your injuries. In Montana, a skier assumes all “risks inherent” in the sport.
In order to find another skier at fault, you must show that the other skier failed to act reasonably and that this failure caused the accident.
When does a skier fail to act reasonably?
Montana Annotated Code 23-2-736 sets forth a number of duties that skiers must adhere to. If the skier fails to adhere to any of these duties and you’re injured as a result, the skier is most likely at fault.
The duties include:
- A skier must know the range of their ability and safely ski within the limits of that ability
- A skier must maintain control of speed and course so as to prevent injury to the skier or others
- A skier must obey all posted or other warnings and instructions at a ski area
- A skier must read the ski area trail map and be aware of its contents
- A skier must not place an object in the ski area that may cause a skier to fall
- A skier must not depart from the scene of an accident without leaving personal identification or notifying the proper authorities if the other skier is injured
Let’s take a look at 2 hypothetical scenarios:
June and Bill are skiing down an intermediate-level ski trail. Both are intermediate skiers and are skiing at a reasonable rate of speed. Nevertheless, the tip of June’s ski strikes an ice chunk and she falls forward. Bill, who is skiing several yards behind June, is unable to turn or stop quick enough and collides with June. Bill sues June for damages.
In hypothetical 1, Bill is unlikely to recover any damages from June. This is because June acted reasonably and Bill must assume all “risks inherent” in the sport.
Tom is a beginner skier but he nevertheless takes on the most challenging ski trail at Big Sky Resort in an effort to impress his girlfriend. As he proceeds down the trail at a high rate of speed, he loses control and crashes into Susan. As a result of the accident, Susan sustains a serious brain injury and sues Tom.
In hypothetical 2, Susan will likely recover damages from Tom. This is because Tom failed to act reasonably when he decided to take on a challenging trail at a high rate of speed despite being a novice skier.
Finding fault after a chair lift incident or some other incident involving the ski area operator
Similar to a collision with another skier, you can’t sue the operator (or owner) of a ski area just because you were injured on the ski mountain. Instead, you must find that the operator was at fault.
In general, ski operators owe a duty to exercise reasonable care with respect to all skiers. The specific duties owed by operators are listed in Montana Code Annotated 23-2-733:
- Marking all trail grooming vehicles with flashing or rotating lights
- Marking any hydrants or similar equipment used in snowmaking operations
- Maintaining 1 or more trail boards at prominent locations at each ski area displaying a map of the area’s slopes and trails as well as the relative degree of difficulty of the slopes and trails
- Designating by trail board or otherwise which ski slopes and trails are open or closed and amending those designations as appropriate throughout the day
- Posting in a conspicuous location the current skier responsibility code that is published by the NSAA
Notably, in some states, chair lift operators are deemed “common carriers” and held to a higher standard of care. In Montana, this isn’t the case. Chair lift operators are held to the usual reasonable degree of care.
Let’s take a look at another hypothetical scenario:
Ray is employed by Big Sky Resort and is tasked with posting trail boards at each ski trail displaying the relative degree of difficulty of the trail. While Ray posts the trail boards, he talks to his friend on his cell phone. Perhaps because he’s distracted, Ray accidentally posts a board indicating that a particular trail is “easy” when in fact it’s the most difficult trail on the mountain.
Jim, an inexperienced skier, sees the sign and decides to ski down the trail. He quickly loses control and is badly hurt.
In the above hypothetical, Ray (and the owner of the ski resort through the doctrine of respondeat superior) will likely be held liable for Jim’s injuries. This is because Ray failed to exercise reasonable care and his failure caused Jim’s accident.
In Montana, there are 3 types of damages available to a plaintiff in a ski accident lawsuit under premises liability law:
- Economic damages are intended to compensate you for the monetary losses associated with your injury (for example, medical expenses and lost income)
- Non-economic damages are intended to compensate you for the non-monetary consequences of your injury (for example, pain and suffering and loss of consortium)
- Punitive damages are intended to punish the defendant for intentional or outrageous conduct
Punitive damages are not usually awarded in personal injury cases. In Montana, punitive damages are only available in cases involving fraud and/or actual malice.
Tips on how to prevent skiing accidents
Dr. Kirk E. Weber, who practices at Big Sky Medical Center and routinely sees injured skiers in the emergency room, has some tips to keep in mind next time you go skiing:
- Get a good helmet that fits and wear it at all times when skiing.
- Well-functioning bindings go a long way to preventing knee injuries. Make sure yours are working well and at the lowest setting possible during normal skiing activity.
- Ski within your ability. Physical condition goes a long way toward injury prevention. Don’t be afraid to stop when you’re tired.
Have you or a loved one been injured in a skiing accident in Montana? Use our free online directory to locate a personal injury attorney in your area.
See our guide Choosing a personal injury attorney.