Business Monday: Surgeon won’t stand trial in frostbite suit
A physician at Aspen Valley Hospital and a local outfitting company won’t have to stand trial over allegations that their negligence led to the amputation of a man’s toes.
On Wednesday, U.S. District Judge William Martinez signed court documents dismissing Dr. Lesley Fraser with prejudice, meaning that the same claims can no longer be brought against the general surgeon in the future.
“The clerk is ordered to enter judgment dismissing this case as settled, and to terminate this case,” the judge wrote. Each party also agreed to pay their own legal fees and court costs.
The dismissal of Fraser from the case effectively put an end to the dispute, which had been set for a seven-day jury trial beginning Jan. 27 in Denver. The other defendant, Woody Creek-based Great Western Adventures, was dismissed from the suit in July 2018.
Plaintiff Bruce Panczner signed documents agreeing to the dismissal of both parties from the lawsuit, which he originally brought against Fraser and Great Western Adventures in April 2017.
The complaint alleged Western Adventures committed negligence because it didn’t tell Panczner that the snowmobiles he rented were not powerful enough for the snowy conditions the day they were used in February 2016.
After their snowmobiles got stuck in the deep snow, Panczner and two other men on the trip ended up making a snowcave in the Bowman Creek drainage, about a half mile from their destination, the Goodwin-Greene Hut, which is about 12 miles south of Aspen Mountain.
Panczner, who is from Pennsylvania, suffered frostbite from the backcountry ordeal and endured through subfreezing conditions, which ended when Mountain Rescue Aspen volunteers found the men at 8:30 the next morning; they were out of the field by 11:30 a.m. and Panczner was taken to AVH.
The suit claimed Fraser misdiagnosed the severity of Panczner’s frostbite, and he was later airlifted to a Denver hospital where “all of the toes and parts of the forefoot on both feet had to be amputated,” the suit said.
Western Adventures had claimed in court filings that other parties — including Pancnzer’s travel mates — shouldered some of the blame for their failure by not helping him with the frostbite by removing the wet socks from his feet. Western Adventures also argued that the maker of the satellite telephone used by Panczner also was culpable because of multiple dropped calls Panczner had made to authorities about their plight.
“As a result, local authorities did not dispatch a search and rescue team until the following morning,” argued Lauren P. Shannon in a court filing entered in July 2017 on behalf of Western Adventures.
Frazer also joined that argument; while Western Adventures was dismissed from the suit one year after, attorneys for Frazer and Panczner had differed on acceptable expert witness testimony regarding frostbite, amputations and the science and medicine behind them, according to court documents.
Media accounts at the time of the incident quoted the Pitkin Sheriff’s Office and Mountain Rescue Aspen as saying they “wish to stress to the community and its visitors to seek professional advice and guidance before venturing into the high country during the winter months.”
The U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado in Denver serve as the venue for the lawsuit.
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Many members of the community wrote to laud the former Skico executive and city councilman for his friendship, dedication to family and community-minded spirit over more than two decades in Aspen.