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Who is Responsible for Winter Sports Safety?

Posted by David P. McCormack

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With February vacation around the corner and March soon to bring warm sunny days on the slopes, the peak of New England skiing is upon us. While skiing is a great way to enjoy the outdoors in winter months, like all snow sports, it is an inherently dangerous activity. Be careful and in-control on the slopes, lest you seriously hurt another skier.

Earlier this winter, a high school student was killed, and another seriously injured in an after-hours sledding accident which occurred at a Maine ski resort. According to data provided by the National Ski Areas Association, serious injuries arising out of ski accidents occur at a rate of about 44.7 per year, not including an average of 41.5 yearly deaths. 

The National Ski Patrol and the National Ski Areas Association have developed “Your Responsibility Code” for safe skiing. The Code requires the following:

  • Always stay in control, and be able to stop or avoid other people or objects.
  • People ahead of you have the right of way. It is your responsibility to avoid them.
  • You must not stop where you obstruct a trail, or are not visible from above.
  • Whenever starting downhill or merging onto a trail, look uphill and yield to others.
  • Always use safety devices, such as ski brakes or leashes, to help prevent runaway equipment.
  • Observe all posted signs and warnings. Keep off closed trails and out of closed areas.
  • Prior to using any lift, you must have the knowledge and ability to load, ride and unload safety.

In addition to complying with the Code, wearing a ski helmet can help prevent injuries caused by skiing. While their use is recommended by the National Ski Patrol, helmets are not widely required by law.

What does the law say about ski area liability?

People who are injured in ski and snowboard accidents often face the harsh reality that many of their rights have been forfeited by liability waivers, most often printed on the back of their lift tickets.   

Such waivers have been widely upheld by courts. For example, in 2009 a New Hampshire court ruled that a waiver protected a resort from liability when an employee driving a snowmobile collided with a guest. (McGrath v. SNH Development, 969 A.2d 392 (NH 2009)

Because of these waivers, where accidents are caused by the negligence of the ski area, recovery may be precluded.   

Many states also have laws that limit the liability of ski resorts. For example, Vermont has set a one-year statute of limitations (12 V.S.A §513) and explicitly states that anyone taking part in sports accepts their “obvious and necessary” risks (12 V.S.A. §1037). Maine states that skiers are solely responsible to each other for collisions (Me. Rev. Stat. Ann. tit. 32, §§15217, 15218), as does Massachusetts (M.G.L., ch. 143, §§71I to 71S). Massachusetts also sets a very short statute of limitations; you must provide written notice to a ski area operator within 90 days of the event.

Fortunately, however, there is a second avenue for recovery where a person has been injured as a result of negligence on the part of another skier or snowboarder. In such circumstances, it may be possible to bring a claim directly against the at-fault person.   

SUGARMAN’s personal injury attorneys have extensive experience handling claims for injuries where waivers of liability are involved. If you or a family member has been seriously injured and you need the guidance of a lawyer, call us at (617) 542-1000, email or fill out a Contact Form.