Evidentiary hearing under way in lawsuit over 2011 skier death at Howelsen Hill in Steamboat Springs
January 10, 2013
Steamboat Springs — At the end of the first day of an evidentiary hearing related to the snow-immersion death of Cooper Larsh at Howelsen Hill on March 17, 2011, one thing was settled: The Alpine slide operated during the summer at Howelsen Hill and the retaining walls around it are man-made structures that are known to exist.
Everything beyond that is part of a back-and-forth argument about what constitutes a "dangerous condition" for the purposes of the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act, which grants sovereign immunity to government entities for tort lawsuits, with some exceptions.
Maureen Ryan, Larsh's mother, has filed a lawsuit against the city of Steamboat Springs, which owns and operates Howelsen Hill, for the wrongful death of her son.
However, before negligence or liability can be established, it must be decided that the situation falls under one of six waivers of sovereign immunity — including the "dangerous condition" of a public facility — as established by the Colorado Governmental Immunity Act.
The hearing that started Thursday is the venue where 14th Judicial District Court Judge Shelley Hill first must sort through facts to decide whether the waiver test has been met.
Because the city referred to the area around the Alpine slide as closed, the argument now largely falls to whether it was properly roped off or marked as such and whether the depiction on the trail map conformed with ski industry practices.
According to Colorado law, it is the plaintiff's burden to establish that there was a "dangerous condition" the government entity knew about, created or negligently allowed to continue.
Ryan’s attorneys called six witnesses Thursday for almost eight hours of testimony in an effort to establish that condition.
First on the stand was Ryan herself. The mother of Larsh, who was 19 when he died, testified that her son was an avid skier who enjoyed passing time on the slopes with his father, who is a ski patroller, and his grandfather, who is a former U.S. Ski Team member.
Ryan described a meticulous young man who she did not know to duck ropes or ski dangerously.
After being hit by a car when he was 10, Ryan said, Larsh became a more careful child.
"He gained a sense of his own mortality," she said.
The second witness for the plaintiff was Galen Woelk, a Wyoming attorney who took at least one class with Ryan when she was a law professor at the University of Wyoming.
Woelk happened to be traveling through Steamboat Springs on March 17, 2011, but he did not learn about the coincidence until later seeing Larsh's obituary in the Laramie Boomerang, Woelk said.
He, along with his friend Dan Polon, skied through the same area where Larsh’s body was later found.
Larsh is thought to have skied through the area during daylight, but Woelk and Polon found their way into the area in the early evening during waning light. Woelk and Polon entered the area through a point off Upper Face, whereas Larsh is thought to have entered the Alpine slide area from the top of the mountain after coming from the Poma lift.
Woelk testified to the rotten snow conditions, which made him realize something was not right with the area in which he was skiing. Neither he nor Polon realized they were in a closed area, Woelk said.
Larry Heywood was next to testify for the plaintiff. Heywood is a ski safety consultant and provided expert testimony.
According to Heywood, the area at the top of the Alpine slide was not properly marked as closed. When examining the scene almost a year later, Heywood said he was able to coast from the top of the Poma lift to where it is thought Larsh began his descent.
Heywood also criticized the Howelsen Hill Ski Area map. Despite ski area maps being artists' renderings, he said, they still should accurately reflect the terrain as best as possible. He said a permanently closed area near beginner or intermediate terrain should be marked as closed on the map.
During cross-examination, the attorney for the city of Steamboat Springs, Jordan Lipp, asked Heywood about permanently closed sections of other ski areas that were not indicated on their respective trail maps. Heywood said he was not familiar with the resorts mentioned.
Chris Wilson, the city's director of Parks, Open Space and Recreational Services; Jon Feiges, a Steamboat Ski Area patroller who was present for the incident report; and John Floyd, who then was a patroller at Howelsen Hill in addition to the Steamboat Ski Area, also testified Thursday.
Using photos, diagrams and drawings made during testimony, Feiges and Floyd described the area in which Larsh was found. The ability to access the area amid the buildings and other barriers at the top of the Alpine slide was discussed. How a skier potentially could exit the area, what the skier could see in certain directions and the clues there might be as to whether the area was open were topics addressed during testimony.
Testimony continues Friday morning, when the defense will call its first witness.
To reach Michael Schrantz, call 970-871-4206 or email mschrantz@SteamboatToday.com