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Ski liability waivers: Why the fine print matters

Skiing and snowboarding have inherent risks. Both seasoned skiers and novices can run into trouble when tackling poor conditions or overestimating their abilities. Even if you're vigilant about safety, others on the slope might not be so careful. They might even be downright reckless.

Over the past decade, more than 130 people have died on Colorado ski slopes, according to Summit Daily News. Last year's season was the deadliest in five years with 14 fatalities. The 2017-2018 season has already been marred by several deaths, including two snowboarders and a ski hill employee who was tragically crushed by a lift.

What liability waivers typically cover

If you frequent the slopes, you're likely aware of the liability waiver you sign each time you buy a lift ticket. It states that you accept the risk of injury or death.

At first glance, that seems reasonable. Even the Colorado Ski Safety Act recognizes that skiers and snowboarders assume all risks inherent to their sports.

But at most ski resorts, these waivers go several steps further. They require you to give up your right to sue the resort - even if they were negligent. Most also have an indemnity provision, meaning you agree to reimburse the ski hill for their losses should you decide to sue them anyway.

But are they enforceable?

A recent appellate court ruling upheld the validity of these waivers. The case involved a visitor from Florida who enrolled in a beginning ski class. The class instructor allegedly hadn't completed her certification and wasn't qualified to teach. While the skier was trying to unload from a lift, following the advice of her instructor, the chair snagged on her boots. The lift operator slowed but didn't stop the lift - apparently because doing so might strain its mechanics. As a result, the victim suffered significant torque on her leg, resulting in a fractured femur and two surgeries.

Yet the waiver the victim signed at the start of the class doomed her case. The court noted that the waiver covered more than just inherent risks. It also required participants to give up their right to sue for negligence.

Waivers can be thrown out only for limited circumstances

To get around these waivers, you have to show that the ski hill or its employees were more than just negligent. You have to show intentional misconduct or reckless disregard for safety, a high bar to meet.

All the more reason to use caution when hitting the slopes - and to read the fine print.

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