Sugarloaf Mountain Chair Derailing Leaves Several Injured.

Someone made a film in the recent past, about a couple that was accidentally left stranded on a ski lift, high above a mountain. Slowly freezing to death and unable to jump from the chair height, the couple faces a harrowing ordeal.

Something not too far from that happened just a few days ago here in New England,at Sugarloaf Mountain in Maine. A chairlift at the state’s tallest ski mountain derailed December 28, injuring eight people who plummeted 25 feet to the mountain below, and stranded almost 150 others for a few tense, and very cold, hours before they were rescued. Winds gusted as high as 25 miles per hour while rescue workers attempted to reach the stranded skiers. The eight skiers who were injured were transported to Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, Maine. A spokesman for the ski resort said none of the injuries were considered life-threatening.

Initial reports indicate that a rope within the Spillway East chairlift, one of 15 chairlifts on the mountain, somehow derailed from the lift’s eighth tower about 10:30 a.m. As the rope loosened, about five chairs slammed on the snow-covered ground, while the rest remained suspended in the air, he said. The 150 or so stranded skiers were hoisted down from the damaged lift by the ski patrol, using a pulley system.

The cause remains under investigation, but resort officials said it was the worst derailment at the resort in almost 30 years. The chairlift was manufactured and placed in service in 1975, and later modified in 1983. It carries 162 chairs, weighing 140 pounds each and built for two. According to industry sources, it is not unusual for a ski lift of that age to still be in use, as the machinery is required to be inspected daily and undergo weekly, monthly, and yearly maintenance and testing, in addition to an annual inspection by the Maine Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety. However, a Sugarloaf spokesman told the Associated Press that the lift was slated for upgrades or repairs. The specific lift that derailed will obviously remain closed while officials investigate the cause of the derailment, but other chairlifts are expected to remain operating.

An incident like this reminds everyone that skiing is a hazardous activity, whether you’re barreling down the side of a mountain at (sometimes literally) breakneck speeds, or riding up the chairlift. Whether or not liability will attach to this incident, will depend upon a variety of factors, centrally whether or not there exists sufficient evidence of negligence on the part of the ski resort owners and operators, as well as potential liability for design defects on the part of the manufacturer of the lift, as well as possibly manufacturers of component parts used to operate the lift safely. A key element in a legal analysis of potential liability here, will be foreseeability. That is, was it reasonably foreseeable that a ski lift of this age and usage would fail in the manner that it did? Was the equipment maintained and inspected as it should have been? Were personnel doing the inspecting and maintenance properly trained? Who trained them? Discovery, perhaps the longest phase in any personal injury litigation, will reveal answers to many if not all of these questions.

Unfortunately, the ski industry has a very powerful lobby in New England, and, at least in Massachusetts, has been very successful in persuading the Legislature to pass laws drastically restricting liability for injuries suffered while using their facilities. A great deal of this reasoning rests upon the legal doctrine of “Assumption of The Risk,” which essentially holds that an activity such as skiing is inherently dangerous and unsafe, and that a paying patron assumes the risk of injuries while skiing, absent evidence of gross negligence (vs. what is known as “ordinary negligence.”)

Here is hoping that your New Year in 2011 is a safe and healthy one, winter or summer.
Thank you to all my loyal readers of this blog, and to my clients and my friends. I look forward to providing you all with more interesting and useful legal information in the year ahead.