Tuesday, February 29, 2000
The Colorado Supreme Court began hearing arguments Monday about where in the snow the criminal line should be drawn when it comes to reckless skiing.
In our opinion, the justices have but one reasonable answer to give to the question of whether an out-of-control skier or snowboarder should face criminal charges for killing another person on a ski slope. That answer is an unequivocal "Yes."
In 1996, Nathan Hall, then 18, got off work on Vail Mountain, strapped on his skis and headed straight down a black run called Rivas Ridge. Vail Municipal Judge Buck Allen also was skiing Rivas Ridge that afternoon. Allen, an acknowledged expert skier, said Hall was skiing three times faster than he was. The judge said Hall appeared to be off balance as he bounced down the mogul-covered slope. He said Hall looked out of control.
That out-of-control run ended for the 18-year-old after he flew off a knoll and collided with 33-year-old Alan Cobb of Denver. Hall didn't see Cobb until he was airborne -- and it was too late. Hall was skiing so fast that after smashing into Cobb he slid some 80 feet farther down the slope before stopping.
Cobb died of head and spinal injuries.
Hall was charged with reckless manslaughter. However, an Eagle Court judge threw out the case, saying the teen-age skier couldn't have known he might kill someone by skiing as fast as he did. On appeal, a district court agreed with that ruling.
But the case didn't end there. Now it is being heard by the Colorado Supreme Court. Eagle County prosecutors want a clear standard for pressing charges when it comes to ski accidents that result in death. We assume their colleagues in Steamboat and across the state feel the same way.
For years, district attorneys have successfully prosecuted skiers and snowboarders for injuring other skiers and snowboarders. It appears that, under Colorado law, resort guests are presumed to understand that skiing or riding recklessly is a dangerous activity that may end up hurting someone else. What the law doesn't presume is that those same guests understand that reckless skiing or riding could end up killing another skier or snowboarder. At least that's why Hall saw his manslaughter charge thrown out.
That loophole needs to be closed. The High Court could do that by reinstating the manslaughter charge against Hall and sending the case back to Eagle County to be tried.
Hall's attorney, Brett Heckman, has argued that Cobb's death, although tragic, was the result of an accident, not a criminal act. "Nathan Hall was on a mogul field and fell," Heckman has said. "His ski hit Mr. Cobb. It was a fluke."
But it wasn't. Hall was an advanced skier who could have controlled his speed if he wanted. He chose not to. He may not have meant to kill Cobb, but he did. His deadly recklessness was criminal.