Skiing and snowboarding injuries - who's at fault?

Skiing and snowboarding injuries have become increasingly under the spotlight since Formula One champion Michael Schumacher suffered a critical head injury whilst skiing in 2013.

Due to the inherent dangers associated with skiing and snowboarding, injuries incurred whilst engaging in these activities may attract the voluntary assumption of risk defence. However, there have been cases in Australia where claims for injuries sustained whilst skiing or snowboarding have successfully established a breach in the ski resort’s duty of care.

These cases include injuries sustained due to faulty fencing, failure to consider appropriate risks by ski instructors and dangerous ski runs.

Skiing and Snowboarding Injury Statistics

Sports Medicine Australia conducted a three year study on the rate of injuries for snowboarders in Victoria. Their studies recorded that from 2004 to 2007, 383 snowboarders were admitted to hospital.

A similar study was conducted for skiing injuries sustained from 2002 to 2003, where 384 skiers were admitted to hospital. The majority of these patients were males aged 15 to 34 years.

These injuries were most commonly sustained as a result of falls and being hit or crushed by another person or object. Victims often present with fractured limbs and head injuries, however, injuries to the internal organs have also been recorded.

Preventing Skiing and Snowboarding Injuries

Those persons with less experience on the ski slopes are often the most vulnerable to the risk of an injury. It is therefore imperative that both skiers and snowboarders prepare correctly. There are a number of ways holiday makers can prepare for a safe ski season, including:

  • taking lessons appropriate for their level of skill
  • through pre-season conditioning programs to prepare their levels of fitness
  • only hitting the slopes in good conditions
  • seeking professional advice when purchasing or hiring equipment, to ensure it is fitted properly and suited to your level of experience, and
  • Wearing a helmet to reduce head injuries will also reduce the occurrence of head injuries.

It is important that any injured party informs the ski patrol and seeks immediate medical assistance. It is also important that the victim ensures they are fully rehabilitated before returning to the slopes.

Voluntary Assumption of Risk

Engaging in skiing and snowboarding activities can often involve a ‘voluntary assumption of risk’. This allows ski resorts to avoid liability because the skier or snowboarder has knowingly partaken in a dangerous activity and is aware of the associated risks.

Nevertheless, a claim for negligence can be pursued if the ski resort has breached its duty of care to maintain safe premises. The following cases are examples of where a duty of care regarding ski resorts has been breached.

Dangerous Ski Runs: Establishing a Duty of Care

Injuries Where Two Skiers Collide

The case of Lilley v Alpine Resorts Commission illustrates the difficulties that victims of skiing accidents face when establishing a duty of care has been breached. Here, the plaintiff was injured while skiing when she was hit by a snowboarder who had lost control during a dangerous part of the ski run. The plaintiff argued that the defendant (the Alpine Resorts Commission) had breached their duty to ensure the ski run was safe. The plaintiff claimed that this breach caused the snowboarder to collide with them.

The court found that the defendant had breached its duty of care by failing to ensure the ski run was safe. However, a causal link between the defendant’s breach and the plaintiff’s injury could not be established. The court noted that the snowboarder’s failure to attend as a witness contributed to this finding.

Failure to Maintain Safety Fencing

In the matter of Buller Ski Lifts Ltd v Mt Buller Alpine Resort Management Board, the plaintiff lost control of his skis and slid down a run. Cyclone wire fencing had been erected at the base of the run in order to prevent skiers and snowboarders from falling off an embankment.

There was a gap immediately beneath the fence, which the plaintiff slid through. As a result, he became airborne and fell over the embankment, sustaining extensive injuries. The plaintiff sued both the Alpine Resorts Commission and the ski lift operators. The claim against the Commission was successful due to the court’s finding that the Commission had been responsible for the operation and conduct of ski patrols. The court held that the Commission ought to have identified the gap and closed the run until the fence had been repaired.

Failure of Ski Instructors to Make Adequate Inspections

The matter of Kosciusko Thredbo Pty Ltd v Smith involved an injury sustained during a ski lesson. The ski instructor had skied down a slope and asked his students to ski towards him.

Due to his limited skiing experience, one of the students was unable to stop when he passed the instructor. The student continued on until he collided with a person standing in a group of six beyond the instructor. The person whom he struck fell onto the student, causing a long term injury to his left leg.

The court found that the presence of the group of six skiers presented a foreseeable risk of injury to the plaintiff. Accordingly, the instructor failed to take reasonable care to ensure that the runout area was of an adequate length for his students.

 

Further reading:

Is skiing the world's most dangerous sport? The Guardian Australia, 30 December 2013 
Snowboarding Fact Sheet, Sports Medicine Australia
Downhill Skiing Fact Sheet, Sports Medicine Australia
[1998] Aust Torts Reports 81-475.
[2000] VSCA 31.
[2001] NSWCA 335.

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Dimi Ioannou

Maurice Blackburn Melbourne
Dimi Ioannou is a Principal Lawyer and Practice Group Leader at Maurice Blackburn Lawyers in charge of the firm’s Public and Product Liability team in Melbourne. Dimi is an accredited specialist in personal injury law. Dimi works in the area of public liability and ...

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