The Colorado Supreme Court recently addressed the issue of whether an in-bounds avalanche at a ski resort was included in the definition of “inherent dangers and risks of skiing.” In Fleury v. IntraWest Winter Park Operations Corp., 2016 CO 41 (Colo. May 31, 2016), the Court answered this question in the affirmative.

On January 22, 2012, Christopher H. Norris was killed in an avalanche while skiing on the “Trestle Trees” run within the bounds of Winter Park Resort. His surviving spouse asserted claims of negligence and wrongful death against the ski resort. She alleged that the resort knew that the risk of avalanches was high prior to the accident and that the snow on the Trestle Trees run was unstable, but it neither closed the run nor posted signs to warn skiers of the avalanche risk.

The ski resort moved to dismiss the claims against it pursuant to Colorado’s Ski Safety Act of 1979. The trial court held that the fatal avalanche resulted from a combination of “changing weather conditions,” “snow conditions,” and “variations in steepness or terrain” as enumerated in the Act and, thus, the claims were barred by the Act. The court of appeals affirmed this decision, holding that the phrase, “inherent dangers and risks of skiing” under the Act encompasses avalanches, but the dissent contended that the Act did not unambiguously encompass avalanches.

In construing the statutory language, the Court held that the phrase, “snow conditions as they exist or may change,” encompasses avalanches that occur within the bounds of a ski resort. The Court further concluded that the snow conditions at issue started with “fresh snow on unstable snowpack” and changed to a mound of snow and that Mr. Norris’s death was allegedly caused by changing snow conditions.

The Court’s holding is a victory for ski operators as it clarifies that an inherent risk of skiing includes an avalanche, even when skiing in-bounds at a resort.