State Supreme Court hears Cooper case in Glenwood
May 2, 2002
Former Aspen ski racer David Cooper’s quest to prove that his ski coach was negligent in setting a race course in 1995 reached the Colorado Supreme Court Wednesday.
The seven justices heard oral arguments from attorneys on both sides of the lawsuit in a special session at the Glenwood Springs High School auditorium (see related story).
The court’s decision on the case is expected in three to six months.
“You never know how it goes,” said Stephen Hopkins after the court adjourned. Hopkins, a partner at Higgins, Hopkins, McLain and Roswell, is representing Cooper’s former ski coach, John McBride, Jr., and the Aspen Valley Ski and Snowboard Club.
“I’m glad they asked questions,” he said. “It’s clear they recognize it is an important issue.”
The court was being asked to rule on whether a waiver signed by Cooper’s mother that allowed him to race with the ski club prevents him from pursuing a negligence suit against the ski club and McBride.
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Two lower courts ruled the waiver is binding, but Cooper’s attorneys are challenging that, saying Colorado law does not specifically state whether a parent can waive their child’s right to sue after they turn 18.
In 1995, Cooper, then 17, lost control on a ski club super G training course and crashed into a tree. He spent two weeks in the hospital and lost his eyesight for life.
A year after the accident, Cooper and his father, Michael, filed a suit claiming that McBride set the course too close to the edge of the Strawpile trail on Aspen Mountain and that he failed to put up protective trailside netting. The suit also claims that McBride urged the racers to “push the envelope” even though the light was flat that day.
If the court finds in Cooper’s favor, it could mean that parents in Colorado can no longer sign binding waivers on behalf of their children. If so, it’s possible that some organizations may no longer choose to let children participate in the activities they offer.
But Cooper’s attorney, Martin Freeman of the Aspen law firm of Freeman and Freeman, argued that a decision in his favor would not have a “chilling affect” on recreational activities.
“That is an empty argument,” Freeman said, adding that has not happened in other states that have ruled that parents cannot waive their children’s rights.
During his presentation, Stephen Hopkins, McBride’s attorney, came under persistent questioning from Justice Gregory L. Hobbs, Jr., who told him, “I think you are arguing there are no child’s rights, only parents’ rights.”
Hobbs also told Hopkins at one point, “Let them try the case,” referring to the fact that Cooper cannot seek a jury trial to try to prove that McBride was negligent if the release is held up as valid.
“But the mother signed a release,” Hopkins responded, cutting to the heart of the case.
Later, Hopkins summed up his arguments before the court by saying that “parents get to be parents” and that they can make decisions that are binding on their children. And, he said, Cooper’s attorney was arguing that “parents should not be trusted.”