Steamboat Springs Maureen Ryan, the mother of a skier who died on Howelsen Hill in 2011, testified Wednesday before the state Senate Judiciary Committee about a bill that proposes to increase the damages cap for a lawsuit against a government entity.
Under the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act, the maximum amount that can be recouped by a person suing a government entity is $150,000. More than one person can recover as much as $600,000, with no one person receiving more than $150,000.
Senate Bill 23 would increase those limits to $350,000 for one person and $990,000 for more than one person, provided no one person recovers more than $350,000. The bill originally had a single award amount of $478,000 but was amended to $350,000.
After a two-day evidentiary hearing in January, 14th Judicial District Judge Shelley Hill ruled that the circumstances leading to Cooper Larsh’s death March 17, 2011, constituted a “dangerous condition” such that governmental immunity was waived for the city of Steamboat Springs, which owns and operates Howelsen Hill.
“Nothing in my background, however, prepared me for my fall down the rabbit hole that is the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act,” said Ryan, speaking about her legal career experience. “What I have found is that the ability of a private person to sue a Colorado public entity for even the most egregious negligence is a nearly illusory concept.”
Ryan said finding a lawyer to take a case with a $150,000 damages cap can be difficult or impossible. She said she already has paid nearly $30,000 in legal fees and costs not including lawyers fees.
“Merely because Howelsen Hill happens to be owned by the city of Steamboat Springs, however, this case has been a surreal experience of financial attrition,” Ryan said during her testimony.
“Some people wonder why I even sued, given the fact that pursuing a cause of action will likely cost more than the damages cap,” Ryan said. “First, I realized that this was the only way I would find out the truth about Cooper’s death. Second, I thought the case was important for the safety of other skiers. And finally, even though Cooper is dead, I still owe him a duty as his mother to seek justice for what happened to him.”
In the event Ryan wins her case against Steamboat Springs, she would be limited to recouping $150,000 from the city.
The bill states that, if passed, it would take effect July 1 and apply only to civil actions filed on or after that date. It also stipulates that the maximum award amount would increase every four years to adjust for inflation.
Representatives for an insurer who handles Colorado school districts and a hospital testified against the $350,000 damages cap, arguing that it was too large and sudden of a jump. They also argued that the financial impact was impossible to measure given that the attractiveness of suing a government entity would increase, inviting more litigation.
Committee Chairwoman Lucia Guzman, D-Denver, asked Ryan whether she thought the $350,000 cap was enough.
“Probably not given how much it costs to bring a case like mine,” Ryan said.
The bill passed the committee by a 5-0 vote and will be placed on the calendar to be debated by the full Senate. It is sponsored by state Sen. Bill Cadman, R-Colorado Springs, and Sen. John Morse, D-Colorado Springs.
To reach Michael Schrantz, call 970-871-4206 or email mschrantz@SteamboatToday.com