Legal aspects of Conlin case more about behavior after Colorado Supreme Court’s decision kept out most avalanche evidence
EAGLE — On Jan. 22, 2012, two young men died in in-bounds avalanches at different Colorado ski resorts, Taft Conlin in Vail and Christopher Norris at Winter Park ski area.
Stemming from the Winter Park case, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that under Colorado’s Skier Safety Act, in-bounds avalanches are an inherent risk of skiing.
That Supreme Court ruling excluded evidence about the avalanche that killed Taft from the trial, District Court Judge Fred Gannett ruled. That narrowed the lawsuit filed by Taft’s parents, Dr. Louise Ingalls and Dr. Stephen Conlin, from wrongful death to claiming Vail Resorts was negligent when ski patrollers closed Prima Cornice’s upper gate but not the lower gate.
After seven days of testimony and argument, the jury deliberated about four hours before returning with the verdict that Taft had sidestepped into a closed area when the avalanche swept him away to his death.
“Vail Resorts agrees with the ruling by jurors of the Eagle County District Court and believes this was a thoughtful and well-reasoned decision, consistent with Colorado law,” the ski company said in a statement.
May not be over yet
The trial took almost six years to come to fruition, and the legal process may not be over yet.
Jim Heckbert, with Burg Simpson and attorney for Taft’s parents, said an appeal is possible. His clients will have the final say, he said.
Local attorney Joe Bloch said Ingalls and Conlin may have grounds for an appeal, but Colorado’s Skier Safety Act is written in such a way that it’s difficult to find a way to sue a ski company.
“Vail Resorts is almost invincible right now,” Bloch said.
James H. Chalat’s Denver law firm handles cases similar to Ingalls/Conlin v. Vail Resorts, including a current case in Nevada. Chalat wrote to the Vail Daily that it’s a victory the case was heard by a jury and not dismissed. He also wrote it’s important to note that on the trial’s first day, June 8, Judge Gannett held that Vail’s liability release was invalid because it contradicted the ski area operator’s statutory duty under Colorado’s Ski Safety Act.
“Gannett’s order is at the heart of the safety precedent in the case,” Chalat wrote.
Never about the money
Ingalls said the lawsuit was never about the money but was about making people safer.
Under Colorado law, the most money they could have won was $467,500. A few years ago, they vowed that if they won any money, they’d create a scholarship fund in their son’s name and give it all away.
They created the scholarship anyway, to pick up the four-year tab for a good student who could not otherwise afford to attend Vail Mountain School. The first Taft Conlin Scholarship winner graduated VMS and is in college.
A Little Taft Magic
On Thursday morning, after Wednesday’s verdict, a few friends of Taft and his parents spent a little time under Taft’s Magic Tree.
It’s a massive cottonwood growing beside Brush Creek in Eagle Ranch, one of the oldest living things in Eagle County. Its branches reach across the creek to the bank on the other side.
Taft helped build the swing that hangs above the creek, one corner dipping into the creek as it cascades past.
Taft’s sister Maddi played for the Eagle Talons soccer team. When her brother died, the Talons wanted to put a memorial beside the creek and the tree. They asked the town of Eagle for permission. In less than 48 hours, they had it.
The Eagle Ranch rec path winds past that memorial and the Magic Tree on one side. Brush Creek babbles past on the other. Kids ride by on bikes, many too young to have known Taft. Adults and parents ride or stroll or jog by, some of whom cannot forget him.
That cottonwood has always been the Magic Tree. On the day it was dedicated as Taft’s Magic Tree in June 2012, five months after Taft died, every nook had a kid in it, Taft’s friends egging one another on to live a little larger.
These days, look closely amid the branches and you might spot the tattered remnant of a prayer flag, hung there during the dedication. When those flags flutter, they send a prayer to heaven, to Taft.
Listen closely and you’ll hear kids laughing, echoing Taft’s laughter.
Taft’s Magic Tree is a fort, a castle, a spaceship, the Whomping Willow from Hogwarts — whatever generations of children’s imaginations say it is.
On the day it was dedicated, no one wanted to leave, so they didn’t. They lit a bonfire and stayed up until 4 a.m., coming to one concrete conclusion: No matter how many years it runs, life is short. Live it.
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