Colorado Supreme Court Rules Against Crested Butte Resort

Are resorts responsible for keeping you on the lift? At least one person thinks so. In a pending case, this argument could force resorts in Colorado to update their equipment.

In an important opinion, the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that operators of ski lifts should exercise the “highest duty of care” when transporting resort visitors on ski lifts. The case, Bayer v. Crested Butte Mountain Resort, Inc., concerns injuries suffered by Eric Bayer when he lost consciousness and fell from a Crested Butte lift. Bayer suffered serious and permanent head injuries in his fall from the fixed-grip, double chair.

He then brought suit against Crested Butte, claiming the resort had a duty to operate the lift with a restraining bar on the chair. This “duty” is the heart of Bayer’s theory of liability: if Crested Butte had exercised the highest duty of care and installed a restraining bar, it could have prevented Bayer’s fall from the chair when he lost consciousness. Failure to install such a restraint constitutes negligence, according to his suit.

Initially, the trial court dismissed Bayer’s case determining Crested Butte was not negligent in operating the chair without a restraining bar. Crested Butte fulfilled its duty to Bayer because it had met an “ordinary” standard of care applying to lift operators under the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Act, in lieu of a more stringent, “highest” standard of care. On appeal, Bayer successfully challenged this ruling.

Bayer Gets Chance For Relief

The Colorado Supreme Court ruled Crested Butte had a duty toward Bayer that must be measured under the more stringent standard of care: In other words, resort operators’ acts and omissions may be negligent even though they meet the standard of ordinary care. For instance, the Tramway Act requires that a restraining bar be installed on ski lifts in the summertime, but such a restraining bar is not required during the winter months. Normally, such a seasonal requirement should help insulate a resort operator from liability for failing to have a restraining bar in the winter.

However, individuals riding lifts have little control over safe lift operations, and they must put their absolute trust in lift operators. Once you step onto a lift and relinquish all control to the resort operator, that operator is subject to the highest degree of care and must deliver you safely to the top of the lift. This unique aspect of lift operation formed the foundation of the Court’s ruling in the Bayer case.

The Colorado Supreme Court thus directed the trial court to reinstate Bayer’s suit. The ruling by the Colorado Supreme Court does not mean that Crested Butte was negligent in operating the lift without a restraining bar. Instead, it means Bayer has a chance to prove negligence, using this more stringent, highest standard of care as a measuring stick of the resort’s decision to operate the lift in winter without a restraining bar.

The case is now set for trial in April 1999. Attorneys for Crested Butte declined to comment, due to the upcoming trial. Bob Schuetze, one of the attorneys for Bayer, was willing to speak about the case. He says, “Hopefully the ruling will make ski areas more vigilant about the quality of lift design, operation, and maintenance in an effort to promote safety. There will be fewer injuries and lawsuits if ski areas follow the Bayer ruling and exercise the highest degree of care.” Of course, resorts will have to make their own judgments about what constitutes the highest degree of care for their particular area, conditions, and lifts.

-Cordon Baesel