Steelers and Eagles football is back, and that means winter is just around the corner in Pennsylvania. Skiers and snowboarders are already praying for the slopes to open. Snow sports are inherently dangerous and injuries to skiers and snowboarders are common. In many cases, the operators of ski slopes are exempt from claims of personal injury resulting from accidents that happen on the mountain, but not always. In some cases, a well-prepared attorney can help injured enthusiasts recoup large sums of money due to negligence by slope operators.
One such case was decided in 2019 in Pennsylvania’s U.S. District Court for the Middle District. On June 12, District Judge James Munley and a jury awarded an injured snowboarder $2.5 million following a finding of negligence. The case was Ashmen v. Big Boulder Ski Area.
The case focused on the role operators of the ski slope played in failing to prevent injuries. In 2015, Plaintiff James Ashmen, Jr. spent a day skiing with friends and decided to go for a snowboard run at night with a friend. Unbeknownst to Ashmen, operators at Big Boulder Ski Area had closed a portion of Snowdrift trail that he was riding. Ashmen struck a snow-making machine left parked on the run, fracturing his left leg and requiring surgery.
Ashmen’s attorney successfully argued that operators did not show a duty of care to prevent skiers and snowboarders from entering the closed trail. In court, it was discovered that operators had posted a sign and closed the trail with a rope, but had not ensured those protections were operational and visible. At the time Ashmen was hurt, the rope was down according to his testimony. Ashmen contended he did not see any warning signs or other notice of closure, and only noticed the snow-making machine while airborne following a jump.
The massive award reflects the judge and jury findings that operators owe a significant duty to ensure that closed trails are easily identifiable, even at night. The fracture Ashmen suffered is a significant injury that will negatively impact the rest of his life, and has derailed the 24-year-olds dream of becoming a law enforcement officer.
Defense attorneys argued that roping off of the trail and placing signs advising the trail was closed were sufficient and that the injury suffered by Ashmen is not an abnormal type of injury experienced by skiers and snowboarders. The resort and ski area have filed an appeal in hope of overturning the award.
In personal injury law, it is very common to see cases where injuries are suffered despite warning signs. Often, courts will recognize that warning signs must be effective to prevent responsible parties from suffering grievous injury. Warning signs must be easily seen to be effective, and closed trails on ski slopes that allow night skiing are no different than a local store that places a wet floor sign in such a way as to make it unseen by the average person.
Ashmen had good legal representation and ensured his rights were protected. Even though defense attorneys argued that Ashmen’s friend had seen warning signs that the trail was closed, the plaintiff’s council managed to build a solid case and show the jury why Big Mountain Ski Area should have known better than to fail to prevent access to closed areas.
These types of awards are not common. Under Pennsylvania law, many injuries that are sustained by patrons of businesses due to unsafe conditions are unable to recover damages. Often, plaintiff’s are found to be at least partially responsible for the injuries they sustained. It is common for judges and juries to significantly reduce award amounts because of the responsibility a person owes to their own safety.
A common injury suffered by many people each year is slip and falls on wet floors, such as when snow is melting, or when it is raining. A key point for Ashmen’s victory is that his attorneys were well prepared for trial and made sure the jury understood the relationship between negligent actions and the injuries suffered by Ashmen.
Negligence claims revolve around what the responsible party knew -or reasonably should have known- about the inherent danger present. Had Big Mountains Ski Area placed brightly colored barricades and notification throughout the run that Snowdrift Trail was closed, it is unlikely Ashmen would have succeeded in his case. In fact, had the operators shown due care to prevent injury, it is unlikely Ashmen would have been hurt at all.
The nature of the injury Ashmen suffered also plays a role. The fracture he sustained was complex and required the placement of a permanent metal rod to reinforce the bone. Ashmen will likely suffer pain for the rest of his life. Ashmen said he dreamed of becoming a police officer since a very young age, and that dream is all but over for him. The nature of his injury will prevent him from experiencing many physical activities and likely will cause other, associated problems as he gets older.
Personal injury law is a tricky endeavor. Often, clients will bring cases forward that seem like a dead end on the surface, but -as with Ashmen’s case- careful consideration of facts shows a bonafide legal responsibility. Settlement amounts are seldom as high as the award Ashmen is set to receive -provided that the award is not reduced on appeal.
More important than getting a big settlement is the institutional changes that occur when juries find a lack of duty of care. Big Mountain, along with many other ski resorts, must examine their policies carefully to ensure the safety of patrons and reduce the likelihood of adverse legal action.
It is a good idea to speak with a personal injury attorney if hurt at a business even when an individual believes they are wholly responsible for the injury, the law may see things differently. Discussing the facts of an injury with a personal injury attorney that provides a free consultation is simply a smart step to protecting rights and benefits that may be due.
The biggest thing, though, is ensuring that light is shined on potential dangerous situations so that others are not similarly hurt or killed.