City of Steamboat Springs faces lawsuit related to 2011 skier death at Howelsen Hill

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Cooper Larsh

— On March 17, 2011, a tragic accident occurred. Cooper Larsh, a freshman at the College of Wooster in Ohio, suffocated after falling head first into the snow while skiing at the Howelsen Hill Ski Area.

Larsh was vacationing in Steamboat Springs with his mother, Maureen Ryan, during his spring break. Described as a strong skier, Larsh bought a lift ticket that afternoon, told his mother he’d call her later and headed up the Poma lift.

That’s where the agreements between the two sides engaged in a lawsuit over Larsh's death end.

Ryan, who lives in Boulder County, filed a lawsuit against the city of Steamboat Springs, which operates Howelsen Hill, for the wrongful death of her 19-year-old son. The legal process that began in 2011 meets its first significant milestone Thursday with an evidentiary hearing at the Routt County Justice Center that will decide whether the city is immune from the claims.

In 1971, the Colorado General Assembly enacted the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act, which grants sovereign immunity to government entities for lawsuits that “lie in tort or could lie in tort” under all circumstances except under six waivers.

The law was designed to protect taxpayers from costly awards associated with tort lawsuits — a civil wrong that causes another harm.

Waivers are to be interpreted broadly and the application of sovereign immunity narrowly. The waiver that would apply to the suit involving Larsh’s death relates to the “dangerous condition” of a public facility. Only after a waiver to sovereign immunity is granted can liability under another statute, such as the Colorado Ski Safety Act, be determined.

James Chalat and Evan Banker, the attorneys representing Ryan, have argued in filed motions that the Ski Safety Act supersedes the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act, but that argument was rebuffed by District Court Judge Shelley Hill, who ruled that the language of the act and previous cases held that the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act was intended for situations such as this and that a waiver must be established.

The evidentiary hearing scheduled for Thursday and Friday mornings is when the discrepancies in the statements of fact presented by the two opposing sides will be distilled into findings of fact, as determined by the trial court.

If the court determines the existence of a “dangerous condition” at Howelsen Hill Ski Area, a waiver to the city's sovereign immunity can be granted. At that point, the suit could move toward establishing the city's liability under a law such as the Ski Safety Act.

Ryan and her counsel wrote in a complaint that when Larsh got off the Schnackenberg Poma lift and turned to his left, he was able to freely and without encountering any “out of bounds” signs ski down the Town View trail as it appeared on the ski map available at that time.

However, Larsh was in an area the city maintains was closed between North Town View and Upper Face, where the Alpine slide was beneath the surface of the snow.

The city states Larsh would have to duck a rope and navigate other obstacles to reach the area. Ryan’s counsel presented an affidavit from Galen Woelk, who skied into that same area March 17, 2011, that states he skied “through what appeared to be a designated entrance on the skier’s left side of the Town View run,” according to a motion.

The accuracy of the trail maps available at the time and whether the area was properly marked will be points of significant contention during Thursday’s hearing.

The end of the story is not in dispute.

After Larsh entered the area above the Alpine slide, it appears he skied over a steep portion of the bank, lost his skis and flew about 6 feet through the air before landing head first in the snow.

After not hearing from her son since a text message sent at 2:21 p.m., Ryan waited for him at the base of Howelsen Hill at 8 p.m., when the ski area was closing and the lights were shutting off.

Ski area employees were alerted to a missing person. A search was conducted, and Larsh’s body was found at 9:20 p.m.

To reach Michael Schrantz, call 970-871-4206 or email mschrantz@SteamboatToday.com

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