Lawsuit over boy’s death is settled |

Lawsuit over boy’s death is settled

Scott Condon
Aspen Times Staff Writer

The Eagle County Commissioners rejected the advice of their insurance company to fight a lawsuit filed by a family whose son was killed at the Mount Sopris Tree Farm in El Jebel.

The county commissioners paid $100,000 out of public coffers to settle the suit rather than engage in litigation that might take years to complete. The commissioners decided “it was the right thing to do,” according to county administrator Jack Ingstad.

“We basically had a fight the last two days with the insurance company,” said Ingstad. “They said they don’t settle cases they think they can win.”

The commissioners decided the issue wasn’t about winning or losing. They hoped that by settling the case it would begin a healing process regarding the death of Jamie Close, according to Ingstad. They made the financial settlement without any contribution from their insurer.

In addition to paying $100,000 to Steve and Cathy Close, the boy’s parents, the county will issue a statement that accepts responsibility for the circumstances that led to the death of Jamie, according to the Closes’ attorney, Joe Bennett.

“The Closes said they would not agree to any settlement unless they acknowledged responsibility,” he said.

The Closes said the lawsuit was never about money. They simply wanted accountability for Jamie’s death and to try to make sure a similar situation isn’t repeated.

Jamie was playing in a long, narrow building at the tree farm on June 23, 2001, with a group of friends. Although that building was used as an indoor skateboarding park, Jamie and his friends weren’t skating. They had been riding their bikes and were running around when the accident occurred.

The boys’ ride had arrived so they were scrambling to the vehicle when Jamie tried to duck under a heavy metal bar someone had dragged into the facility for use in performing skateboard tricks. Jamie, 10 years old at the time, hit his head on the bar and fell back. He grabbed the unstable bar and pulled it on top of him.

The bar weighed 200 pounds, was 10.5 feet long and about 3 feet high. It was unstable because it wasn’t properly anchored and the bar’s feet weren’t big enough, according to Bennett.

The bar hit Jamie in the head, crushing his skull and killing him instantly.

The Closes’ lawsuit claimed the county was negligent for the lack of supervision and the unsafe conditions at the building used for a skateboard park.

The county, through its insurer, contended it had governmental immunity from liability for the accident. The county also said it had allowed use of the building only after a group of residents from the El Jebel and Basalt area said they would be responsible for the site.

The leaders of that group, Herb Weisbard and Royal Laybourn, were originally named in the Closes’ lawsuit but they were dismissed. Colorado law makes people who volunteer for kids’ recreational activities immune from liability for accidents, Bennett said.

A motions hearing was scheduled Thursday to determine if the county was also immune. The parties reached a settlement at about 10 p.m. Wednesday, Bennett said, and a judge was informed Thursday that the case was resolved.

While the lawsuit is settled, the Closes said it doesn’t ease their pain.

“No, it’s not a relief,” said Cathy. “We feel like we’re letting Jamie down.”

“An amazing life was lost,” added Steve. “We think about our son every minute of every day.

“People cannot even comprehend the devastation this has caused our family.”

The Closes’ other son, Jeff, was also at the tree farm “and watched his brother die,” Steve explained. Jeff is now 8.

(The Closes released a statement that is printed on page A1.)

Steve said the outcome could have been avoided if “people of responsibility from the county on down” would have supervised the site. Bennett said the skatepark was an accident waiting to happen because of dangerous conditions. There were broken bottles, nails sticking out of boards and overhead garage-type doors that could slam down if boards were dislodged. There was no adult supervision with any regularity.

Bennett said the county had responsibility to police the property and make sure it was safe, even if a group of citizens promised to provide supervision.

But Bennett said he didn’t think county officials were bad people. “I think that they’re really good people who used poor judgment,” he said.

Steve Close agreed with that assessment.

The Closes said they will contribute some funds from the settlement to Jamie’s soccer club and to a skateboard park being planned in Carbondale. They are also looking for a matching donation to a memorial fund, which currently has about $4,000.

Contributions of any size are welcome to the Jamie Close Memorial Fund, in care of Alpine Bank, 0350 Highway 133, Carbondale, CO 81623.

Friends have already created a backcountry memorial to Jamie near Goblin Valley, Utah, a popular desert area that was the boy’s favorite, according to his dad.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is]