A six-person jury ruled Wednesday, June 20, that Vail Resorts had closed the upper Prima Cornice run on Vail Mountain’s front side before an in-bounds avalanche killed 13-year-old Taft Conlin on Jan. 22, 2012, reports Vail Daily from court. Taft’s parents, Dr. Louise Ingalls and Dr. Stephen Conlin, had sued the ski company for negligence, saying the company did not close the run properly and violated Colorado’s Skier Safety Act.
Doug Lovell, Vail Mountain’s chief operating officer, praised Wednesday’s verdict while expressing sadness for Taft’s family and friends:
“Vail Resorts agrees with the ruling today by jurors of the Eagle County District Court and believes this was a thoughtful and well-reasoned decision, consistent with Colorado law. Nonetheless, we are also aware of how difficult the trial has been for everyone involved, and we remain deeply saddened by the tragic events of Jan. 22, 2012, and for the family and friends of Taft Conlin. The company continues to place the highest value on the safety of our guests and employees and is proud of the Vail Ski Patrol and their ongoing commitment and professionalism. We will continue to work hard each and every day to mitigate risk and provide a safe environment for skiers and snowboarders on the mountain.”
Ingalls said if they had won any money from the lawsuit, then they vowed to create a scholarship fund and give it away.
“We just wanted to make things safer,” Ingalls said. “That has been our goal since starting this six years ago. Even with today’s verdict, our efforts have already made a difference.”
Ingalls suggested that skiers need to take care of themselves, take avalanche classes and carry gear. The same day Taft died, an in-bounds avalanche killed Christopher Norris at Winter Park ski area. The Colorado Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that under Colorado’s Skier Safety Act, in-bounds avalanches are an inherent risk of skiing. That narrowed Conlin’s case from wrongful death to claiming Vail Resorts was negligent when ski patrollers closed Prima Cornice’s upper gate, but not the lower gate.
Ingalls and Conlin’s attorney, Jim Heckbert, was at odds with District Court Judge Fred Gannett on several points and said an appeal is not out of the question:
“The judge excluded a great deal of our evidence that we thought was relevant. As to whether we appeal, we’ll talk to our clients,” Heckbert said. “It violates every law of nature for parents to bury their child. Children grow up and leave, but the bond remains. That is the natural order, that is the circle of life. That circle of life was broken because Vail broke the law. As a result, Taft Conlin died,” Heckbert added.
Colorado’s Skier Safety Act says that if a trail is closed, then every identified entrance should be closed.
“A trail closure must be so clear and unambiguous that a 10-year-old child can understand that it is closed,” Heckbert said.
Heckbert took aim at Vail ski patrollers testifying they were unaware that skiers climbed from up from the lower Prima Cornice gate.
“Four of the plaintiff’s witnesses said they’ve done it and were with others when they did it, including a couple of coaches from Ski & Snowboard Club Vail. For 26 years before this child died on Prima Cornice, people remember sidestepping up when the upper gate is closed.”
Heckbert said by closing that upper gate, Vail Resorts intended to close a portion of the trail. But what portion? Heckbert asked.
“No one knew what was open and what was closed. Whose fault is that? Vail management,” Heckbert said.