Judge denies city of Steamboat Springs' motion to dismiss skier death claim

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Cooper Larsh

— On Thursday, 14th Judicial District Judge Shelley Hill issued an order denying the city of Steamboat Springs’ request to dismiss a claim from Maureen Ryan related to the death of her son, Cooper Larsh, while he was skiing at Howelsen Hill on March 17, 2011.

An attorney for the city argued that case should be dismissed because the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act protects government entities from cases that “lie in tort or could lie in tort.”

To determine whether the circumstances of Larsh’s death met one of six waivers of governmental immunity under the act, an evidentiary hearing was held Jan. 10 and 11.

In the order issued Thursday, Hill wrote that the conditions that lead to Larsh’s death constituted a “dangerous condition” that waives the city's immunity. The city has 21 days to respond. Neither the city nor its attorney could be reached for comment Thursday afternoon.

Larsh died from snow immersion suffocation in the Alpine slide area of Howelsen Hill. In the hearing earlier this month, the city held that the area was closed to skiers and was indicated as such. Ryan and her attorneys argued that the area at the top of the Alpine slide was not marked well enough.

Hill agreed.

“Given that standard (the Colorado Ski Safety Act), defendants’ decision not to rope off the 20-foot access at the top of the upper closure area constituted an unreasonable risk to the safety of the city’s skiing guests,” Hill wrote in her order.

Hill wrote that the city knew of the dangers posed by the man-made objects in the Alpine slide area — including retaining walls, in addition to the slide — and made the decision to permanently close the area because of this.

“Since closing off the entire closed area is a standard industry practice, defendants should have known in the exercise of reasonable care that failure to do so was an unreasonable risk to the public,” she wrote.

Citing case law, Hill held that the failure to properly construct safety devices — in this case, a rope across the top of the Alpine slide area like was used to close the sides and bottom of the area — constituted a “dangerous condition.”

Jim Chalat, Ryan’s attorney, said Larsh was portrayed in the media and official reports as poaching terrain or knowingly skiing in a closed area.

“It was very important to Cooper’s family that his conduct be vindicated,” Chalat said Thursday.

The city now may choose to appeal the trial court’s decision. Even if the city decides not to appeal and loses a negligence claim, an upper limit on liability claims of $150,000 per person applies to tort cases against government entities.

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

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