This is the question the industry and courts across the county have recently been struggling with. Several recent court cases, including notably Bagley v. Mt. Bachelor (2014) have held in essence that terrain park features created, built and maintained by ski resorts fall outside of the statutory liability immunity that typically shield resorts from the “inherent” risks of skiing injuries. The steady increase of ever more serious injuries in terrain parks coupled with recent court holdings that have permitted lawsuits to move forward against ski resorts, have caused the industry to reevaluate how terrain parks are designed and operated.
At issue in many of the cases arising out of terrain park injuries is the definition of what is an “inherent risk of skiing.” Many statutes such as Oregon’s do not include terrain parks in the list of “risks.” Despite the urging of the industry, Courts and legislators have been reluctant to include terrain parks in this list.
Here is Oregon’s statute:
ORS 30.970(1) describes “inherent risks of skiing”: “‘Inherent risks of skiing’ includes, but is not limited to, those dangers or conditions which are an integral part of the sport, such as changing weather conditions, variations or steepness in terrain, snow or ice conditions, surface or subsurface conditions, bare spots, creeks and gullies, forest growth, rocks, stumps, lift towers and other structures and their components, collisions with other skiers and a skier’s failure to ski within the skier’s own ability.”
Many states including Colorado have similar definitions. Colorado’s statute is currently being examined by the Colorado Supreme Court over whether avalanches withing the ski area boundary are considered “inherent” risks of skiing. Naturally, the statute does not specifically delineate avalanches as an “inherent risk of skiing.”
Its no surprise that terrain parks are a huge draw for ski resorts. The parks draw in thousands of skiers and boarders and have helped attract younger generations of riders to the sport. As a result, there has been a proliferation of terrain parks built in resorts across the country. In some cases, the parks have grown increasingly larger, with enormous jumps and tabletops. As the jumps get bigger, the speeds higher, the consequences naturally become less forgiving. Injuries in parks now include paralysis and even death. One lap through any of the leading terrain parks in the country can be a humbling experience when you see firsthand just how large some of the features have become.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers have taken on the industry as a result of some of the tragic injuries that have occurred in terrain parks. These cases are built on the principle that injuries can be prevented if terrain parks are designed better. As a result of many of these lawsuits, terrain parks are now becoming safer by embracing better design and best practices in operation and maintenance and rider education.
The safety hierarchy is a simple principle that is central to the both the legal arguments raised by plaintiffs’ lawyers cases arising out of terrain parks. This principle is now starting to be applied to terrain park design. The principle basically states: If a hazard can be eliminated through design or construction, it should be; if a hazard cannot be designed out, it should be guarded; finally if elimination and guarding are not feasible than adequate warnings must be giving. Fortunately, better terrain park design can help eliminate some of hazards in terrain parks.
Traditionally, many terrain parks were built simply by snow cat operators piling up snow into a series of jumps. There was often little to no consideration given to the engineering behind the jump and landing design. This lead to situations where jumps had unsuitable landings that were either too short or too shallow. Other common design problems included jump take-off points that were too high or too low resulting in improper speed. Finally, jump shape plays a critical roll in terrain park safety and many jumps had shapes that caused unintended consequences for riders in the air. Riders were completely unaware as to whether a given jump in the terrain park had been built to safe design standards.
The industry has moved toward a higher level of design sophistication in terrain parks in an effort to make the features safer. Engineers and physicists started studying at terrain park features and have identified dangerous features as well as developed design standards that can be easily implemented to make safer features. Although there’s a lot of math that has gone into developing these design standards, they have been simplified into some pretty straightforward design concepts.
The University of Washington in Seattle has started Snowsports Safety Research Fellowship through its Applied Biomechanics Lab devoted to addressing design elements important to terrain park safety. The programs stated goal is to “Improve Rider Safety While Maintaining Creative Flexibility in Terrain Park Design.” There’s no doubt this work will have an important impact.
In an effort make their parks safer and protect themselves from liability, the ski industry has formalized its approach to designing and operating terrain parks. Recently, ASTM, an international standards organization that develops voluntary consensus technical standards, formed Committee F-27 dedicated to developing terrain park design standards. Additionally, the US Terrain Park Council is a non-profit organization that formed to develop best practices in terrain park design. The US Terrain Park Council also performs “Smart Park Services” where it certifies terrain parks after analyzing the park design and performing train and park design and operation. This level of design standardization and sophistication has certainly improved the safety of terrain parks. The “Smart Park” certification is also particularly useful because terrain park users can know they are riding a terrain park that has been built and maintained by industry best practices.
In addition to better park design the industry has begun to embrace terrain park safety education. The “PARK SMART” program is a simple system of signage used to raise awareness for park safety. http://www.terrainparksafety.org/ Snoqualmie Summit in Washington State requires park users to take a park safety class before they can be issued a pass to use the terrain parks. http://www.summitatsnoqualmie.com/youth/summit-park-pass Certainly education is an important component of park safety.
Here’s another video that Vail uses to promote safety in its parks:
Terrain parks are here to stay. Although the law is catching up the industry, for now terrain parks are generally not an “inherent risk” of skiing. It makes sense that resorts should be held accountable for the safety of their parks due to the fact that park features are artificial man-made conditions entirely under the control of the resorts. Fortunately, there is a greater attention to design and more focus on safety. Terrain parks have certainly proved to be an unusual place for law, science and recreation to meet. Hopefully the improvements in safety set in motion by lawyers fighting for their injured clients will continue and injuries will decrease in severity and frequency in terrain parks.
Next time you are in a terrain park, look for the “Smart Park” certification and ride safe!
For further reading on this issue, take a look at this excellent article titled, “Designing Tomorrow’s Snow Park Jump” by Jim McNeil. Mr. McNeil is a professor of physics and a foremost expert in terrain park design.