Oregon ski area operators and the state’s trial lawyers association are trying to craft a compromise on an update to the state’s ski statute within the next two weeks.
On Friday, the House Interim Committee On Consumer Protection and Government Effectiveness held an informational hearing in Salem on the case for an update to the 1979 statute.
A state Supreme Court ruling in 2014 on a personal injury lawsuit brought by a skier who was injured at Mt. Bachelor has brought the issue of ski area liability to the attention of the Legislature.
In 2006, 18-year-old Myles Bagley was paralyzed when he crashed while jumping in a terrain park at the ski area. Bagley sued, seeking $21.5 million, but the Deschutes County Circuit Court and the Oregon Court of Appeals ruled that by signing a liability release when he bought his season pass, Bagley had waived his right to sue.
In December 2014, the Oregon Supreme Court overturned the earlier rulings, allowing the case to resume. The case is scheduled to go to trial in October.
At Friday’s hearing, Mt. Bachelor President Dave Rathbun said the emergence of snowboarding and the shift to shorter, wider skis since 1979 has changed the sport, making it possible for relatively inexperienced riders and skiers to explore off-trail.
Rathbun said an update to the ski statute should make it clear that tree wells and avalanches inside ski area boundaries are among the “inherent risks” of skiing, a list that currently includes changing weather conditions, collisions with other skiers and a skier’s failure to ski within his or her ability.
Jeff Kohnstamm, president of the company that operates Timberline Lodge and the adjoining Timberline ski area at Mount Hood, said the ski industry is responsible for around $500 million in economic activity per year in Oregon and employs roughly 7,000 Oregonians. A spike in liability lawsuits could render some viable businesses nonviable, he said.
Kohnstamm said man-made features like the terrain park where Bagley was injured have helped keep ski areas “stay relevant” with younger riders, and though ski area operators don’t take safety lightly, such parks can be risky for riders and skiers.
Arthur Towers, representing the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association, said at the hearing that members of his group have been meeting with ski industry representative since the fall. He said his group is very interested in changes to the ski statute but wants to ensure individuals hurt as a result of negligence on the part of ski areas or their employees retain the right to seek compensation in the courts.
“The meetings have been cordial, but I don’t want to sugarcoat it either — we haven’t reached a compromise yet,” he said.
Legislators will soon begin a short session Feb. 1 that will end in early March, forcing legislation to move at a quicker pace.
Committee member Susan McClain, D-Hillsboro, said Friday her committee will need to vote on the proposed update to the ski statute within two weeks for the legislation to move forward during the session.
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