Ski Buddy Lawsuit
In March of 2009, the world watched as actress Natasha Richardson fought for her life after experiencing a ski injury on the slopes of Quebec’s Mont Tremblant. The 45-year old was not wearing a ski helmet as she took a beginners lesson at the luxury ski resort, and during a routine fall she hit her head on the ground.
Although she at first appeared fine, it was later discovered that she had suffered a traumatic brain injury, and she died a short time later. As the death was ruled accidental, no charges were laid, but in the aftermath nearly $200,000 was spent by the Quebec Ski Areas Association on a safety campaign encouraging the use of helmets.
The tragedy brought attention to the frequency and seriousness of ski injuries, but also raised questions of liability. Should the Mont Tremblant resort require the use of helmets for all guests enjoying the slopes? Certainly, in an increasingly litigious world, enforcing as many safety regulations seems like an attractive solution, but restricts the personal freedom and agency of guests. Many are concerned that such enforcement would create a slippery slope, where informed and consenting adults are treated like children when it comes to their own personal safety. In the case of Richardson, the wife, mother, and accomplished thespian even signed a medical release form after her fall, claiming she did not need medical attention despite being told that symptoms can present hours, or even days, after the original injury occurs.
In a similar case, a British skier, Adrian Coe, was found to not be personally liable for the death of his “ski-buddy” during a heli-skiing trip in British Columbia. The man was skiing with an American tourist, Mark Kennedy, when the victim fell into a tree well, a deep hole that occurs next to tree trunks when snowfall is blocked by the trees branches. These wells, invisible to the untrained eye, can cause skiers to become trapped, and risk death from exposure or suffocation. In the case of Kennedy, Coe was paired with him as “ski buddies,” charged with keeping an eye on each other while skiing down the slope. Coe realized that Kennedy was missing once the group got to the bottom of the slope, and immediately notified the guides to organize a search party.
Kennedy’s widow claimed that the informal agreement between ski-buddies constituted a contractual relationship that established duty of care between them. The legal profession watched the case vigilantly, with one lawyer noting that it was “far from clear in the law what the legal duty of care” was in such situations. Eventually, the courts decided that as the deceased was “participating in a high-risk sport…responsibility for his death cannot be placed on Mr. Coe.” One lawyer, not associated with the case, noted that as personal responsibility is paramount, Mr. Coe would have been advised that his duty of care towards his ski buddy would not be enforced, as ensuring Mr. Kennedy was still with the group would have distracted him from looking after his own safety. However, similar cases have found that severe negligence can constitute liability, such as in bumping into others on a slope or causing other skiers to careen off the designated path.
However, in the case of both Ms. Richardson and Mr. Kennedy, it seems that both the courts and the court of public opinion place the onus on personal responsibility. However, whether or not cases like this result in a change of corporate policy for ski resorts and adventure guides to protect themselves from further litigation.
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