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Skiers beware: Proper safety and insurance can help avoid mountain of problems

Two accidents this winter at a popular ski resort in Maine are a reminder of the dangers of snow skiing — and of the need to check your insurance as well as your ski gear.

Just to be on the safe side — before hitting the slopes — find out whether your health insurance policy is up to snuff, says Jerry Becerra, president of Barbary Insurance Brokerage Inc. in San Francisco. Basic policies for health insurance and life insurance will provide coverage for people injured or killed at a ski resort, Becerra says.

Consumers also should look into travel accident policies that would add coverage for injuries sustained at a ski resort. These policies usually are available for $100 or less and can be purchased through travel agents, tour operators or online booking sites, according to Becerra.

Once you’re at the resort, you shouldn’t rent skis there, says Frank Darras, an attorney in Ontario, Calif. When someone rents skis, he usually must sign a waiver. That waiver would provide a legal shield for the resort in case of a mishap involving the skis.

“If you sign a waiver, you’re giving up all of your rights to sue,” Darras says.

What should I do if I get hurt?

One of the first things a skier should do if he is injured — no matter how minor the injury — is to report it to the ski resort, says Kenneth Sharperson, an attorney at New Jersey law firm Anderson Kill & Olick PC.

Rules vary from state to state regarding when a skier must report an injury. If the ski resort is run by a government agency, different reporting rules apply, says Frank Darras, an attorney in Ontario, Calif.

Aside from telling the ski resort, an injured skier should contact his health insurance company, which most likely will take care of medical bills (depending on the policy). If a lawsuit is filed, all records regarding the ski injury should be saved, experts say.

Downhill skiing advocates maintain that if people follow the rules, they can ski safely without getting injured.

Two accidents at the popular Sugarloaf Ski Resort in Maine in this winter have put the safety spotlight on this sport. More than 10 million Americans age 6 and up are downhill snow skiers, according to SnowSports Industries America, a trade association.

The inherent risks of snow skiing

On Jan. 15, 2011, Joshua Waldron, a 16-year-old high school junior from Maine, died when he struck a piece of snowmaking equipment on the side of a trail at Sugarloaf.

While it’s too soon to tell, it’s possible this accident resulted from what’s known in legal circles as “the inherent risk of skiing,” says Maine attorney Benjamin Gideon, who regularly skis at Sugarloaf. Most states (such as Maine, Colorado and Connecticut) that support large ski industries have laws protecting ski resorts from being sued if an injury or death is tied to the inherent risk of skiing.

However, if an attorney can prove that a ski injury or death was not tied to the inherent risk of skiing, then a lawsuit may be filed against the ski resort, Gideon says.

“If the ski resort stuck a pole in the middle of the trail and doesn’t mark it, then it’s not an inherent risk of skiing,” Gideon says. “There’d be no protection for the ski resort under the statues.”

Darras explains there are inherent, or assumed, risks with skiing. Ski resorts are legally protected when one of these assumed risks occurs. For example, if someone falls on ice while skiing, he wouldn’t have a legal case against the resort because ice is an inherent or assumed risk. However, if the resort is negligent and didn’t properly maintain equipment, then that type of accident is not an assumed risk and the resort could be held liable in a lawsuit.

Depending on the case, the ski resort’s insurance company could end up paying damages in a lawsuit. But many factors come into play, such as whether skiing equipment was faulty itself or whether t wasn’t properly maintained by the resort.

Chairlift accident spurs legal action

Currently, state officials in Maine are investigating the derailment of a chairlift Dec. 28, 2010, at Sugarloaf that injured eight people.

According to the resort, the area was hit with strong winds that day, so several lifts were shut down. Shortly after one of the lifts was put back in service, mechanics noticed a problem and began slowing the lift to take skiers off, but the lift cable dropped and five lift chairs with people in them fell to the snow below.

Ethan Austin, a spokesman for Sugarloaf, says the damaged chairlift remained closed as of Jan. 20, 2011, while state officials and resort workers continued their investigation.

Already, five of the victims of the December 2010 accident have hired Gideon to represent them. Gideon hasn’t filed a lawsuit yet. The attorney says he’s in the midst of his investigation and awaiting a final report from Maine officials. Austin says Sugarloaf does carry liability insurance.

“Obviously, our thoughts are with everyone on the lift, and we hope for a speedy recovery for all of them. We’ve been reaching out to everyone to address their individual concerns,” Austin says.

Darras, the California attorney, maintains that ski resorts that have encountered problems with chairlifts “are in deep trouble.”

“If I’m going up on the chairlift and they’ve poorly maintained it and failed to inspect it and we all die, that’s not an assumed risk,” Darras says. If it’s not an assumed risk, that means the ski resort could be sued.

Safety and snow skiing

Industry leaders maintain ski resorts adhere to rigorous standards for chairlifts. The most recent death involving a chairlift happened in 1993, says Michael Berry, president of the National Ski Areas Association. Twelve deaths involving chairlifts have occurred since 1973, when the industry began tracking safety.

“Chairlifts are breathtaking in terms of their safety,” Berry says. “You are nine times more likely to be in a fatal car accident than in a chairlift fatality.”

The SnowSport Safety Foundation, a nonprofit group that seeks to improve the safety of skiing and other snow sports, recently released a first-of-its-kind report on safety at 25 California ski resorts during the 2009-10 season.

The report examines hazards and risks at each ski resort, and safeguards in place for skiers, such as fencing and padding. The report also grades the resorts on their use of warning signs.

The report notes that none of the resorts required special training or instruction to skiers before using lifts, and none of the resorts mandated personal protection equipment such as helmets, goggles and pads.

Berry says about half of all snow skiers wear helmets. For more than a decade, roughly 40 snow skiers have died in skiing accidents each year, he says.

“Ten years ago, none of those people were wearing helmets. Last year, half were in helmets,” Berry says. “The solution to reducing risk or avoiding death is not an appliance. It’s all about your actions.”

To make sure you’re taking the right actions, here are some snow skiing safety tips from the National Ski Areas Association:

• Remember that skiers ahead of you have the right of way.

• Don’t stop on the slope so that you obstruct a trail or are not visible from above.

• When merging on a trail, yield to others.

• Observe all posted signs and warnings.

• Keep off closed trails and out of closed areas.

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