The in-bounds avalanche at Winter Park that killed Christopher Norris, of Evergreen, Colo., on January 22. (photo: CAIC)

Wrongful Death Lawsuit Filed Over Winter Park Avalanche

Winter Park, CO – The family of a man killed an an in-bounds avalanche in January at Colorado’s Winter Park Resort has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against this ski resort’s operator.

Christopher Norris, the father of two young children from Evergreen, Colo., died as a result of being caught in an avalanche while skiing the Trestle Trees area of Winter Park on January 22. The small avalanche, reportedly 40 feet wide and 60 vertical feet long, started on a rocky outcrop with slope angles of between 40 and 60 degrees. According to the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC), the slope failed on a buried layer of depth hoar covered by a soft slab formed by two recent storms. Investigators believe that Norris traversed below the outcropping, triggering the slide from below. He was skiing alone at the time. Norris was found fully buried two to three feet deep, face downhill, with one hand reaching towards the surface.

The in-bounds avalanche at Winter Park that killed Christopher Norris, of Evergreen, Colo., on January 22. (photo: CAIC)
The in-bounds avalanche at Winter Park that killed Christopher Norris, of Evergreen, Colo., on January 22. (photo: CAIC)

A lawsuit filed against Intrawest Winter Park Operations Corporation, the company which runs and manages Winter Park Ski Resort owned by the City of Denver, alleges that despite detailed warnings issued by the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, employees at the Winter Park resort failed to take action necessary to prevent Norris from entering an area susceptible to avalanches and unsafe for skiing.

“Christopher Norris became only the second skier since May 2005 to die while skiing on an open trail of a Colorado ski area, and we believe that his death was an avoidable tragedy,” said James G. Heckbert of the Denver law firm Burg Simpson Eldredge Hersh and Jardine, P.C., attorneys for the Norris family. “On the morning of January 22, 2012, an alert was issued for Colorado’s Front Range region, warning that north facing slopes with a 30-degree incline (similar to those found in the Trestle Trees area of Winter Park) were at the greatest risk of an avalanche. In addition, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center advised skiers to ‘enjoy the powder, but only in the safety of ski areas.’ Despite these warnings, Winter Park Ski Resort not only failed to warn people of the avalanche hazard, but also failed to close potentially unsafe areas of their resort to skiers. These facts are detailed in our complaint filed with the Grand County (Colo.) District Court.”

Colorado law caps damages in lawsuits against ski areas at $250,000, a situation which Heckbert says the Norris family’s lawsuit points out needs to change.

“In the lawsuit we have filed, it is our assertion that Chris Norris died because Winter Park did not want to close down a dangerous area of the mountain,” Heckbert says. “So severe are damages caps in ski area liability cases, it becomes a business decision to keep the dangerous terrain open, as there is little cost to the ski area if someone dies in an avalanche.”

In addition, “Unfortunately for Norris’ family, Colorado law makes it difficult to pursue a negligence claim against a ski resort,” notes David B. Cronheim, Chief Legal Correspondent for First Tracks!! Online Media. “The Colorado Ski Safety Act limits the liability of ski resort operators and generally permits recovery only where the resort has violated the Act. The Act further provides, in pertinent part, that, ‘no skier may make any claim against or recover from any ski area operator for injury resulting from any of the inherent dangers and risks of skiing.’  Norris’ family will have to demonstrate that an in-bounds avalanche is not an ‘inherent danger’ or ‘risk of skiing.'”

Norris’ death occurred from the second avalanche in Colorado since 1991 to kill a skier in clearly open terrain within a ski area boundary, according to the CAIC. A large wet avalanche killed a skier at Arapahoe Basin on May 30, 2005. Several other fatalities have occurred in the state in terrain temporarily or permanently closed by ski patrol.

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