Tag Archives: skiing

Alpine Canada applies the brakes to ski racing

May 31, 2011

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Alpine Canada, the national governing body for alpine and ski cross racing, announced a series of measures aimed at improving safety in domestic ski racing as well as a strategy to work with FIS (the International Ski Federation) to improve conditions at the World Cup level.

The changes are in response to a rise in serious skier injuries; more than half of Canada’s national team didn’t compete throughout the 2010-11 season due to injury (read article here). Erich Mueller, a ski safety expert from the University of Salzburg and a member of the injury research team for FIS, says that 42% of World Cup skiers suffered injuries in 2009 and that 23% of those injuries resulted in athletes missing at least eight days of training and/or racing (read article here).

Kelly VanderBeek, a skier on the national team, opines that, ‘We know there are risks but we’ve gone too far.’ VanderBeek appreciates that ski racing is an inherently dangerous sport but qualifies it: ‘It doesn’t have to be this dangerous. It’s just taken a quantum leap in the severity’ of injuries sustained by skiers.

Max Gartner, President of Alpine Canada, correctly notes that, ‘In order to have a sport with a good balance between risk and reward’ it is necessary to recalibrate and rethink their approach.

Changes include (see Alpine Canada’s press release here):

  • avoiding the use of injecting water into the snow thereby making the slope resemble a skating risk to make the course hard and fast
  • setting courses in Canada with a focus on reducing speed
  • lobbying FIS for different ski suit materials to be used at the elite/World Cup level to create more drag and slow down ski racers
  • recommending mouth guards and back braces be used at all levels (their cost can be prohibitively expensive so they aren’t yet mandated)

It is noteworthy that in a sport where the need for speed is essential for winning, the national governing body for alpine and ski cross racing has recognized that the best courses and gear needn’t be the fastest. Alpine Canada has appreciated that the technologically-inspired means of making skiers go faster has disrupted the balance between risk and reward and have accordingly and properly taken measures to slow things down.

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Playing Catch-Up

April 15, 2011

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The road to hell is paved with good intentions. This expression is just as appropriate now as it was when coined by – depending on whom you believe – either Samuel Johnson (1709-1784) or Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1091-1153).

It predictably seems that as the tsunami of essays and exams approach with the end of our respective universities’ semesters (plus sundry other projects including working on writing and conference presentations, Kris’s recovery from some unidentified pernicious parasite or amoeba thing, coaching kids’ soccer/football teams, the start of the NHL playoffs, etc.), our pseudo-journalistic responsibilities to The Canary suffers.

Whilst our intent has been to offer educational or informational commentary in response to contemporary events in sports law, I am compelled to play catch-up to clear the backlog and break the bottleneck of events which are fading from view in the rear-view mirror. Accordingly, what follows is a brief synopsis of things from the not-so-distant past.

  • The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration has just fined Wolf Creek Ski Area $17000 for serious workplace violations following an investigation into the death of the area’s ski patrol director in an avalanche on 22 November 2010 (see story here). The employee was alone was not wearing a helmet as required by state and federal laws. State intervention and regulation into the affairs of adventure activities is not new. California state regulators have fined Mammoth Mountain Ski Area $50,000 for several job safety violations related to the deaths of three ski patrol members on 6 April 2006 (see story here). The Wyoming Department of Employment cited Jackson Hole Mountain Resort in 2009 for failing to protect ski patroller Kathryn Miller with a helmet when she died in a fall in Spacewalk Couloir in 2008. The resort did not require its patrollers or other ski workers to wear helmets (see story here). Not that we needed any more convincing but this is yet further proof that adventure activities are not immune from the long arm of the law.
  • Women’s ski jumping was approved by the International Olympic Committee at its meeting in London on April 6 for inclusion at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics. Ski half-pipe, biathlon mixed relay and team events in luge and figure skating were also approved (see story here). As a footnote, Kris and I wrote a piece in 2009 in the International Sports Law Review entitled ‘Ski jumping through Olympic-sized hoops: An analysis of Sagen v Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) for the 2010 Olympic & Paralympic Winter Games.
  • The family of a 17 year old girl killed in a skiing accident in Ontario two years ago filed a $2 million lawsuit last month against the school board, the resort, the superintendent of education, the director of education, the supervising teacher, and employees of the resort. Elisabeth Steel Reurink had received less than one hour of instruction before being permitted to ski at Collingwood’s Blue Mountain Resort. She was skiing in the company of a teacher employed by the London District Catholic School Board at the time of the accident. The trip was part of her school’s physical education curriculum. Permission and consent forms were signed along with a waiver. The lawsuit alleges Elisabeth did not want to ski L-Hill – the run on which she was killed – but was encouraged to ski it by her teacher. The lawsuit does not identify what conditions on the hill were like or its level of difficulty; however, according to Blue Mountain’s website retrieved in March 2011, L-Hill is an intermediate or expert run. Elisabeth lost control, hit a tree and was killed instantly. She was wearing a helmet. The suit basically alleges negligent instruction and evaluation. It is noteworthy that Elisabeth was encouraged to ski L-Hill rather than ski it against her will. There is a world of difference between being coerced or under duress to do something as opposed to being politely pushed or emboldened to ski a run under the supervision of a teacher. None of the allegations have been proven.
  • The Manitoba Junior Hockey League recently suspended a player for 40 games for driving an opposing player into the boards (see story here). Hockey Manitoba past president Brian Sarna was bang on when he said that players who set out to deliberately injure someone don’t belong in the game. The National Hockey League could learn a thing or two and tear a page from the MJHL’s rule book.
  • Also courtesy of my home province comes this unusual lawsuit that’s the first of its kind in Manitoba. The province has filed a civil suit aimed at seizing the Winnipeg home where a soccer coach allegedly abused a preteen girl who played on his team. Under the province’s Criminal Property Forfeiture Act, people can lose their property to the government if a court rules they used it for unlawful activity. The lawsuit says the man’s home was “an instrument of unlawful activity” because on at least two occasions the man allegedly sexually touched the girl while she was there (see story here). Child abuse in sport remains a problem. A 2010 study by the University of Huddersfield found that 52% of abused children were abused in community-based organizations which include sports teams (see story here). Whilst progress has been made, significant work needs to be done. As a small but sad example, USA Swimming, released a list last year which showed 46 people – including former director of the national team Everett Uchiyama – who received lifetime bans or permanently quit the organization, most for sex-related offenses (see story here). Lawsuits are not uncommon (see here for example). In this light, any legal device which aids in the reduction of child abuse in sport ought to be welcomed.
  • Between Georgian lugar Nodar Kumaritashvili’s death and allegations that the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) may have violated International Olympic Committee (IOC) ethics rules with targeted visits (see story here), the squeaky clean image of John Furlong – who led Vancouver’s winning bid and the 2010 organizing committee – is in dire jeopardy. I wonder if VANOC’s foreknowledge of the luge track’s dangerously high speeds was disclosed to Nodar’s family when they accepted $150,000. On the world stage of the Olympics, VANOC blamed Nodar for his death while conveniently absolving themselves of responsibility. If Mr. Furlong didn’t tell them about VANOC’s and the International Luge Federation’s concerns over “extremely high speeds” that presented an “unreasonable demand” on the athletes and that the main cause was in fact a track that was too fast that they knew about in advance and did nothing about, then Mr. Furlong has some explaining to do. Maybe he’ll get around to that once he’s finished spinning and explaining his questionable behavior to the IOC. It all brings to mind a Sir Walter Scott quote: “Oh what a tangled web we weave … when first we practise to deceive.”
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Moore Winter Sports accidents

October 25, 2010

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Emma Moore v. Hotelplan (T/a Inghams Travel) & Mr Adriano Tantera [2010] EWHC 276 (Ch)

This case concerns an accident while undertaking winter sports, more particularly an organised evening snowmobile (‘skidoo’) ride at the Italian ski resort of Passo Tonale in January 2007. The claimant was a 37yr old personal trainer on a group skiing holiday organised by the defendant operator (Inghams). The company subsequently joined a third party (Mr Tantera) to the action as he provided the skidoos and instructed the party as to their use.

The action arose when the claimant lost control of the skidoo as the group was descending down the mountain. The claimant collided at speed with a parked car at the foot of the slope causing spinal injury and paralysis at T5 (mid-chest).

The action was for:

  • breach of contract,
  • breach of tortuous / delictual duties owed under Articles 2050 and/or 2043 of the Italian Civil Code
  • Negligence

The case was made more complicated by the fact that the defendant denied responsibility for the activity and blamed the third party entirely, to the extent that it claimed any actions of the Ingham representative on site were merely as an agent for Mr Tantera.

The Court at [7] identified five key questions:

  1. What were the contractual arrangements for the skidoo trip?
  2. What instructions were given to the claimant as to the control of the skidoo, and in particular was she instructed in the use of the engine cut out, the cut off button?
  3. What was the cause of the claimant’s loss of control of the skidoo?
  4. Would the operation of the cut-off button have prevented the accident?
  5. Was there contributory negligence on the part of the claimant?

Taking each in turn,

Although the holiday was booked by another member on behalf of the group four months previously and purported to exclude liability for any subsequent third party excursions, the Court held at [28] that Mr Tantera operated this excursion on behalf of Inghams through a contract signed in 2002, and viewed the party as Ingham customers [16]. The Court also relied on the fact that the Skidoo’s were advertised in an Inghams’ welcome pack [11], the party paid Inghams for the trip [12], received a receipt on headed Inghams notepaper [12], were not told that the onsite representative (Ms Hodges) was acting for a third party [13], had to exclusively book the excursion through Ms Hodges [24] and had to sign disclaimers (that were subsequently not relied on as they were for a different vehicle) on behalf of Inghams [14]. Given these findings, the contract for the supply of the skidoo excursion was also impliedly subject to the original liability clause meaning that Inghams was liable for any injuries and consequent losses “caused by the lack of reasonable care and skill” on the part of Mr Tantera [29].

Having established potential liability, the next question was to establish whether the defendants through Mr Tantera had breached their duty to the group in failing to give clear operating instructions for the Skidoos. The Court heard a number of mechanical arguments relating to the Skidoos (Polaris 550 Fun Sport Edge 136 Touring snowmobiles), but essentially this section can be summarised as a factual discussion of the safety briefing. The Court heard that all members of the group chose to wear helmets, despite the fact that this was non-compulsory [33], and that several members of the group were complete novices. The party also stated unanimously that the safety briefing took 30 seconds each [34-39], and that no-one was shown what or where the cut-off switch was. This contradicted Mr Tantero’s evidence that he spent 2-3 minutes with each person and that his usual practice was to give such an instruction [41]. The most damning bit of evidence though came from Ms Hodges who described Mr Tantera’s briefing in her witness statement as:

“When he briefs each driver he first asks (in English) if it is their first time on a skidoo, then he switches on the engine himself, they are not allowed to do this. He then tests the accelerator, which is on the right, and says “this is the throttle-accelerator; it is an automatic clutch, no gears”. He then shows them the brake on the left-hand side and says “this is the brake”. Stay in line, five to six metres separation, no overtaking, no slalom.” [40]

 Unsurprisingly the Court preferred the evidence of the party and held that Mr Tantero had not shown the group the cut-off switch, thereby breaching his duty to the claimant.

 The Judge held that the accident occurred when the Skidoo was going too fast on the downhill return leg of the journey, 45mins into an otherwise uneventful trip. Although the Court heard from two expert witnesses, it preferred the defendant expert’s view that an examination of the skidoo after the accident had shown no defects with the mechanical operation of the vehicle, suggesting driver error was to blame for the accident. In particular the Judge held that the claimant most probably drove too close to the skidoo in front of her, swerving to avoid it and in her panic hitting the accelerator rather than the brake [65].

The causation question of whether an application of the cut-off switch could have prevented the accident was comparatively straightforward and the Court held at [74] that it would have done.

The only question remaining was whether the claimant was contributory negligent. At [80], the Court found that there were two errors the claimant made that materially contributed to the accident, the first was driving too close to the skidoo in front, the second was in applying the throttle rather than the brake (although the Court was careful to suggest that she should not be judged too harshly for her confusion in the ‘heat of the moment’). The Court however rejected the argument that the claimant should have noticed and applied the cut-off switch.

In summary, the Court suggested that “the Claimant created the emergency, but as a consequence of the negligence on the part of Mr Tantera in failing to instruct her as to the use of the cut-off button in an emergency, she did not have the means of dealing with it in a manner that would have avoided the accident”, although Mr Justice Owen did award 30% contributory negligence.

There are two other interesting elements to the case that are worthy of consideration, the first is a scathing judgment on the quality of the evidence from one of the defendants experts’ (a Mr Christopher Exall). At [75], the Court suggested that there were: “a number of gravely disquieting features of his evidence, culminating in the assertion in his third report, made under an expert’s declaration of truth, that he had had discussions with a Mr Michael McDowell of Polaris UK, an assertion that, as he was forced to concede in cross-examination, was subsequently untrue. I do not propose to set out the other actions on his part which on any view were indefensible for a witness under an obligation to the court to give impartial and objective evidence. But there can be no doubt that he took on the role of an advocate for the defendant. He did not give impartial evidence, and was wholly discredited as a witness. I could not place any reliance on any part of his evidence.”   Ouch!

The other comment interesting part of the judgment relates to insurance. At [17], the Court quoted from the Defendant Reps Manual Winter 06/07 which contained the following paragraph under the heading ‘Snow-mobiling’: “You will find that snow mobiling and ski-doo’s are offered in many of our ski resorts but the normal holiday insurance cover does not include any liability cover for damage, injury or death caused to third parties. The liability cover held by the operator and included in the price or offered as an extra, is unlikely to be anywhere near adequate in the event of an accident causing serious injury or death to a third party…..”

I don’t know about you, but while the Court did not comment on this paragraph, I think it is worth pausing a few minutes to reflect on it. Essentially isn’t Inghams saying they know that not only is their insurance cover excluded by the holiday contract, but that the operator’s own insurance cover is inadequate, even if purchased as an add-on extra! In fact it makes me so worried, that on my next skiing holiday, it would be perhaps be better if I Skidon’t and we stick to the planks of wood (or fibreglass!).

Youtube clip of a skidoo jump:

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Canadian court finds snowboarder negligent for colliding with skier in blind spot

May 16, 2010

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http://www.canlii.org/eliisa/highlight.do?text=gregorowicz+v+lee&language=en&searchTitle=Search+all+CanLII+Databases&path=/en/bc/bcsc/doc/2010/2010bcsc478/2010bcsc478.html

The Supreme Court of British Columbia found on 9 April 2010 a snowboarder liable for an accident in which he collided with a young child at Grouse Mountain Resort in Vancouver, BC. 

Williamson J held in Gregorowicz v. Lee (2010 BCSC 478) the defendant snowboarder James Lee 75% contributorily negligent and – in an interesting twist to the case – the infant plaintiff’s father Peter Gregorowicz 25% contributorily negligent.

The judge concluded Lee was either boarding too fast or was not paying proper attention when he collided with his nearly five year old son, Patrick Peter Gregorowicz, who sadly sustained a spiral fracture of the right tibia and a fracture of the right fibula as a result. Williamson J also found the father liable for leading his son across the slope ‘so close to the dip that a person above it would not be able to see’ anyone below.

Although not articulated in the ruling, the challenge of the court was to balance inherent risk and reasonableness in the circumstances of skiing and snowboarding on an alpine hill whilst also accounting for the supervision of a five year old child.

Skiing and snowboarding are not safe. The risks, dangers and hazards are clearly identified in Grouse Mountain Resort’s ‘Release of Liability, Waiver of Claims, Assumption of Risks and Indemnity Agreement’ to which skiers and snowboarders accept as well as the possibility of injury and death. These risks include ‘variation in the terrain which may create blind spots or areas of reduced visibility.’

The judge made no mention of the Alpine Responsibility Code – a non-binding voluntary code posted at ski resorts throughout Canada and the United States. The code states that ‘There are elements of risk that common sense and personal awareness can help reduce’ and asks users to adhere to it’s 10 rules.

The first two points of the Code buttress the judge’s analysis:  1. Always stay in control. You must be able to stop, or avoid other people or objects. 2. People ahead of you have the right of way. It is your responsibility to avoid them. Lee clearly was in violation of these points and could not avoid Gregorowicz.

The third point deserves some attention however, 3. Do not stop where you obstruct a trail or are not visible from above. This is significant because Gregorowicz’s father opined that he thought Lee failed to see Patrick because his son was below the dip.

That such a blind spot exists on a run is not unusual. It is the responsibility of a parent (or instructor) to mitigate unreasonable risks and to minimize the exposure of a novice skier to such areas. Just as a parent ought to ski/board wide around a corner and not take the inside track – so as to be more visible to skiers upslope – so too should every reasonable effort be made for a novice skier to either not be led into blind spots or skirt wide around dip features which obstruct them from being seen by those skiing/boarding upslope.

Returning to the case, the accident occurred in a dip – a concave feature where the slope rolls away – which obstructs skiers and snowboarders upslope to see what is below in the dip. Williamson J held Lee 75% liable for colliding with Gregorowicz in a feature which is – for all intents and purposes – rendered temporarily invisible to users of the hill, and Peter Gregorowicz 25% liable for positioning his son in such a feature.

Notwithstanding that Lee ought to have been snowboarding in control at all times, the only way for him to have avoided the collision would have been to either stop at the top of the roll and inspect the dip before continuing or substantively slowing down as he boarded through the feature. From the judge’s analysis, skiers and snowboarders are negligent if they do not use similar evasive maneuvers whenever they approach blind spots – which could include not only dips and rolls but corners and moguls – at a ski hill.

Reasonableness in such circumstances would then mean slowing to such an extent that a skier/boarder would be able to stop on a dime or turn suddenly to avoid a collision with someone who appears out of the blue.

There is little doubt that Lee bears some responsibility for Gregorowicz’s injuries. It is submitted,however, that the judge did not give proper weight to the father’s positioning of his son in a blind spot on the hill and the inherent risks of skiing which include the unlikely (but occasionally very real) possibility of a collision in such a blind spot.

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Just what exactly is the standard of a Bulgarian ski instructor?

March 19, 2010

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Gouldbourn v. Balkan Holidays Ltd & Another (2010) CA (Civ) (Unreported) 16th March

The claimant (Gouldbourn) appealed against a first instance decision dismissing her claim for damages following a knee injury while skiing. The accident arose while the claimant was on a ski holiday in Bulgaria. She had earlier been on a nursery slope practising snowplough turns before the group moved onto another slope with an experienced instructor. While following the instructor down, the claimant lost control on her third snowplough turn and injured her knee.

Although both parties accepted that liability arose under the Package Travel, Package Holidays and Package Tours Regulations 1992 reg.15(2), there was a dispute between them as to the appropriate standard of care. The claimant argued that the relevant standard was the FIS Rules for Safety in Winter Sports Centres “which imposed, among other things, a duty on ski schools, instructors and guides never to allow pupils to take any risk beyond their capabilities.” By contrast, the ski school argued that the appropriate standard was to be judged against the local standards in Bulgaria (a view also held by the initial trial judge).

The Court of Appeal held that the FIS Rules might have imposed a duty on ski instructors never to allow pupils to take any risk beyond their capabilities, but it did not identify or mandate how that duty was to be implemented. They therefore held that the trial judge was right to use the Bulgarian local standard (and no evidence was put before the court suggesting the instructor breached this standard). Indeed, the court held it was not unreasonable or inappropriate for the ski instructor to have taken the claimant on the slope they did. Given this finding, the only logical outcome was to dismiss the case.

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Ski Helmets are not the Silver Bullet

February 9, 2010

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http://www.ottawacitizen.com/opinion/helmets+alone+reduce+serious+injuries/2539248/story.html

The Ottawa Citizen newspaper just published an article (reprinted in the Edmonton Journal and the Windsor Star) I wrote entitled, ‘Why ski helmets alone won’t reduce serious injuries.’ Here are a few excerpts:

—–

The highly publicized death of actress Natasha Richardson in 2009 after she fell while taking a lesson on a beginner’s slope at Mont Tremblant Ski Resort in Quebec put the ski helmet issue back into the spotlight. That she was not wearing a helmet triggered a national debate about legislating standards and making helmet use mandatory at ski hills.

Tragically, an 11-year-old girl died last week in a skiing accident at Calabogie Peaks Resort near Ottawa. She was wearing a helmet when she struck a tree. No doubt this sad incident will prompt another round of debate about safety and skiing.

The Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ) published a paper earlier this month suggesting that helmets are effective in reducing the risk of head injury among skiers and snowboarders. The meta-analysis of 12 previous studies performed in Canada, the U.S., Japan, and Europe systematically reviewed the impact of helmet usage on skiers’ and snowboarders’ head injuries. The researchers found that the use of helmets significantly reduced the risk of head injury; the pooled analysis of the studies indicated that the risk was reduced by 35 per cent.

Advocates of helmets such as the authors of the CMAJ paper encourage their use as a means to reduce the risk of head injury, and go so far as to say that “helmets do work.” This is difficult to argue against but reliance upon such figures paints a deceiving picture.

[F]igures indicate that helmeted skiers go faster than non-helmeted skiers as they are hitting things harder thereby causing more severe injuries. Other studies have suggested that skier and boarder fatality rates are unaffected by helmet usage.

[The theory of risk homeostasis suggests that] a control measure designed to mitigate the risk in one area (such as helmets) is compensated by behaviour such as skiing faster, hucking bigger air, skiing in the trees or taking otherwise ill-advised chances which elevate the risk to its pre-existing level. It is admittedly difficult to say whether the skiers increased their risk-taking behaviour because they were wearing a helmet or they wore a helmet because they planned on taking greater risks.

What are we to make of these contradictory findings? In short, helmets are not the silver bullet to skier and boarder accidents. Helmets alone are not the answer and should be part of a comprehensive risk management program at ski hills which includes skiers and boarders not altering their behaviour or taking more risks just because they are wearing a helmet.

—–

The Canadian Medical Association Journal paper by Kelly Russell, Josh Christie and Brent E. Hagel is at http://www.cmaj.ca/cgi/content/abstract/cmaj.091080v1

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Lawsuit Sparks Search and Rescue Teams to Suspend Service

June 16, 2009

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http://www.cbc.ca/canada/british-columbia/story/2009/06/15/bc-search-rescue-service-suspended.html

In response to the lawsuit launched (and blogged here on May 9) against the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, and Golden and District Search and Rescue for failing to competently initiate a search and rescue (SAR) operation, three SAR teams suspended service. 

The lawsuit is the first of its kind in Canada and has SAR unpaid professionals (volunteers) on edge and government bureaucrats scrambling for a solution.  Officials insist the public is not at risk because of the service withdrawals.

This is going to get messy.  Stay tuned.

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Skier Sues RCMP, Resort and Search and Rescue Team

May 9, 2009

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http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM.20090508.wrescue0508/BNStory/National/home

Golden, BC

A negligence action has been filed by a man who watched his wife freeze to death after the couple skied out-of-bounds at a British Columbia resort.  Gilles Blackburn is suing the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), Kicking Horse Mountain Resort and Golden & District Search and Rescue for failing to initiate a search and rescue operation. 

Mr. Blackburn and his wife, Marie-Josée Fortin, were missing for about nine days and had stamped out numerous SOS distress signals which went unheeded, the statement of claim alleges.  Ms. Fortin died of hypothermia after seven days.

“They cried out for help and the people charged with the obligation of search and rescue did nothing,” says Mr. Blackburn’s lawyer, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden.

The suit says the RCMP, the resort and the search and rescue group “all equipped with the knowledge of the SOS signals … negligently failed to initiate or conduct a search for the plaintiff or Ms. Fortin or otherwise properly investigate the source and significance of the SOS signals.”

Search and rescue lawsuits are exceptionally rare.  It is clear that a response should have been initiated quicker and the RCMP have already apologized for not authorizing a search sooner.  The challenge of the plaintiff will be to prove that the parties had a duty to respond, that the defendants’ actions or inactions were a breach of the required standard of care, and that their failure to respond faster caused or contributed to Ms. Fortin’s death.  No statements of defence have yet been filed.

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High Cost of Chasing Powder

April 2, 2009

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Kamloops Daily News

April 1, 2009

by Jon Heshka

 

It has been a winter of despair for backcountry recreationists in BC. Eight snowmobilers horribly and tragically died in an avalanche outside of Fernie just after Christmas. Marie-Josée Fortin died after ducking under the ropes and getting lost at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden last month sparking a debate about the rights and responsibilities of skiers, commercial operators, search and rescue, and the RCMP. Three weeks ago, two more skiers died in an avalanche at Kicking Horse (the skiers were in-bounds at the resort but in a permanent closure area) and four more snowmobilers have died within the last week near Blue River, McBride and Kimberley.  All were motivated by a quest for adventure and finding untracked powder.

 

The deaths bring this season’s avalanche toll in Canada to 23. The average fatality rate is 14. Just to keep things in perspective, there have been more than 37 shootings and 17 deaths in Metro Vancouver since January 1. There are approximately 400 drowning deaths in Canada every year.

 

The tragedy turned to parody in January when a RCMP helicopter shepherded 3 skiers and 1 snowboarder who didn’t want the escort after they skied out-of-bounds at Grouse Mountain in Vancouver. Such events have put adventure back into the spotlight and into the cross-hairs of critics.

 

The shrill opposition and moral outrage of the public seems disproportionate to the offence of skiing out-of-bounds. A national columnist labelled those who ski in dangerous terrain as morons and imbecils. Even a mountain guide who ought to know better has called it reckless and stupid behaviour. The public seems to largely agree. There is a cruel undercurrent out there saying that those who die while skiing out-of-bounds ‘had it coming’ and ‘got what they deserved’.

 

Is skiing in terrain which isn’t controlled (like out-of-bounds at a ski hill or in the backcountry) to be regarded as utterly unreasonable and dangerous?

 

The main solution proposed to the problem seems to be to charge these nefarious skiers and boarders with a criminal offense or charge them a bill for the cost of search and rescue. Both options are disingenuous and unsatisfactory.

 

It would be problematic if the police were to lay a charge of trespassing or negligence. Neither option seems on solid ground. The matter seems motivated by the cost of search and rescue (which – if the truth be told – is infintismisally small relative to the costs of health care and social programs) and the safety of searchers (which is a valid consideration but too must be placed in perspective – no search and rescuer in BC has died looking for a skier or snowboarder who has gone out of bounds at a ski hill).

 

This issue of rogue skiers is best served by the resorts who have the contractual authority to revoke the ski passes of the offending party rather than through the civil courts on trumped-up charges of negligence or trespass that probably wouldn’t stick anyway.

 

Lost in the miasma of the dialogue is the right of people to make decisions of their own – good and bad.

 

It is tragic when someone dies in an avalanche. The argument often heard is that the victims needn’t have been there in the first place. That if only they had heeded the signs and stayed in the safe zone of the ski hill that they’d still be alive today. Or better yet – never have gone to the mountains in the first place.

 

I can relate. I’ve known too many friends who have died in the mountains and have been to too many funerals. None of them wanted to die, few would have agreed with the suggestion that they died doing what they loved, but all would have wanted the opportunity to choose for themselves whether to ski or sled or climb a certain line or not.

 

Sadly misplaced in the debate is – to paraphrase JS Mill – the sovereign right of the individual to take risks. Equally forgotten is that Canada was founded by a Company of Adventurers and whose spirit of exploration is at risk of being eviscerated and replaced by a namby-pamby state.

 

I fear for the future of adventure. I hope that the tragedy of this seasons avalanche deaths, coupled with the bottomless pit of sadness from the winter of 2003 in which 29 died in avalanches in Canada and gave cause to an MP proposing that backcountry skiing be banned, and the suggestions to criminalize out-of-bounds skiing or charging for rescue don’t represent the point of no return for adventure.

 

It is sad when people die in the backcountry. Indeed, it is sad when people die – period. The solution doesn’t lie in the state posting signs in the wilderness telling people how and where they should recreate or pressing criminal charges to those who push the envelope. This would sound the death knell for adventure. The answer resides in educating recreationists about the risks they take and hoping they make the right decision.

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What does SOS mean? Not rescue me, by all accounts!

March 6, 2009

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Source: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/family+angry+about+delayed+rescue+effort/1331820/story.html ; http://www.vancouversun.com/news/response+fumbled/1330585/story.html; http://www.leaderpost.com/news/Funeral+skier+died+wilderness/1358023/story.html

When Gilles Blackburn and his wife (Marie-Josee Fortin) strayed off the path in an out-of-bounds area near the Kicking Horse Mountain Resort, in British Columbia on 15th February, this started a catalogue of errors that eventually led to Marie-Josee’s death and Gilles living on leaves and creek water for 9 days!

Although the couple were only dressed for a day of skiing and did not have any survival gear with them, Gilles was an avid outdoorsman and was able to build a makeshift shelter using bow stems and branches. This is one of the reasons they survived for so long as the wind chill dropped to -25 some nights. Tragically, 7 days after they had become lost, Marie-Josee contracted hypothermia and died.

Each day, Blackburn drew SOS markings across several kilometres of snow, hoping they would be spotted by rescuers and helicopters. Finally on the ninth day, a helicopter pilot spotted the markings and search-and-rescue crews found him, suffering from frostbite, about 16 kilometres from the ski resort.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has now launched an internal review into why the rescue did not begin until several nearly a week later, despite two separate reports of the SOS markings. Indeed, when an off-duty guide first spotted these SOS markings, he contacted resort staff who told him that there were “no outstanding ski rentals or missing-person reports.” (Sadly, the resort staff overlooked Blackburn’s car parked in the underground car park at the resort). Even after a second sighting was reported to the RCMP, a search was not started as there were no reports of any missing skiers, and under British Columbian rules, volunteer search-and-rescue crews do not have the authority to start their own missions unless ordered to by a provincial authority (such as the RCMP). The third time, these marking were spotted, a pilot saw Blackburn and a rescue was launched.

So what exactly does SOS mean, if not a universal sign of distress? The RCMP has said that Blackburn should have laid down next to the signal as it was unsure how old the tracks were.

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