Are some ski park jumps too risky?

The Seattle PI

March 15, 2008

Kenny Salvini was moving at more than 35 mph when he hit the big tabletop jump at the base of the Summit at Snoqualmie terrain park on Feb. 11, 2004.

The jump sent him high -- more than three stories up, ski area staff would later testify -- and far. Too far.

Salvini, who'd been skiing since age 4, crashed down on a nearly flat field of compact snow and ice. The impact severed his spinal cord between his third and fourth vertebrae and put him in the hospital for three months.

Nine days later, Summit at Snoqualmie ski instructor Peter Melrose died at the foot of different jump at the same ski area.

Paralyzed from the neck down at age 23, Salvini became the lucky one.

Last April, a King County jury found the Summit at Snoqualmie liable for just less than half of Salvini's pain, suffering and lasting paralysis, levying $14 million in damages against the ski area. The judgment -- described by one group representing ski areas as a "runaway jury verdict" -- came as a shock to the industry, which, in the past two decades, has largely received legal protection from skiers hurt on the hills.

"If you go off a cliff out of bounds, that's your fault. But when you're riding on something they've put there to attract you, I don't think it's too much to ask for a little bit of accountability," said Salvini, speaking from his Lake Tapps home.

At conferences around the country, ski area managers discussed how to avoid similar judgments. But, nearly a year after the verdict, operators haven't adopted terrain park design guidelines, which industry experts say are unnecessary.

To Jack Connelly, a Tacoma lawyer hired by Salvini, his client's victory should serve as a wake-up call to an industry that's become complacent about safety. Now, Washington ski area operators may face a second penalty as a lawsuit brought by Melrose's parents moves toward trial.

"It's very, very easy to fix these things so they're safe -- it's high school physics," Connelly said. "If the jumps can be made safe for the X Games and safe for the Olympics, they can be made safe for regular skiers."

Jurors found that Salvini was the exception to the rule that skiers are responsible for injuries they suffer. The difference, jurors ruled, was that Salvini was hurt in part because the jump constructed by the area wasn't reasonably safe.

Following the crash, a friend of the Salvini family who witnessed the crash sent a letter to the Summit asking that the jump be torn down. The jump stayed open and, on Feb. 20, Melrose died after hitting it, his 19-year- old heart ripped in the wreck.

Lawyers representing the Melrose family, including Connelly, argue that the young man died because the jump's landing area was too short, an allegation disputed by the Summit at Snoqualmie's former owner, Booth Creek Ski Holdings.

Although the cases of Salvini and Melrose were the most severe that season, they weren't the only skiers hauled off the hill after attempting that jump. Injury reports released as part of Salvini's lawsuit show that at least 15 other skiers were injured on the jump after overshooting the landing, as Salvini did.

Those injuries -- including a broken back suffered by a professionally sponsored snowboarder -- should have served as a warning for the ski area, Connelly said.

"They're so geared to blame the skier, they don't really do anything after a severe accident," Connelly said. "They knew that people were getting hurt, and all they did about it was put up a sign."

Contacted for comment, Summit at Snoqualmie representatives declined to discuss the issue or say whether the area has changed its terrain park policies following the 2004 season.

"I'm not going to comment on anything involving the jumps and the terrain park because of the ongoing litigation," said Jeff Krueger, a risk manager for the area. "Safety is a priority up here at the Summit, and we are always looking to improve our safety."

Booth Creek has requested that the state Court of Appeals review the Salvini verdict.

As news of the verdict spread, skiers around the country denounced it and called for stronger legal protections for ski areas. Connelly said he and Salvini received a slew of letters accusing them of damaging a new and increasingly popular aspect of the sport.

The popularity of the parks has increased alongside that of big, air-oriented events such as the X Games. Injuries like those incurred by riders at the Summit's Central Park in 2004 aren't unheard of in the industry; one Lake Tahoe terrain park is nicknamed the "vegetable garden."

Most in the industry don't see the parks as a cause of concern. Speaking from her Northern Idaho home, veteran ski patroller Dolores LaLiberte said she's skied all over the Northwest and doesn't believe the parks present a danger.

"I was pretty much around while (the parks) were coming up," said LaLiberte, director of the Pacific Northwest Division of the National Ski Patrol. "I think they're fine. I haven't seen anything ever that would be disparaging to them."

Jasper Shealy, a retired engineering professor often hired as an expert witness by the ski industry, called the assertion that ski area managers can design safer jumps "a naive notion." Salvini's injuries were unfortunate but, Shealy contended, occurred because he hit the jump too fast.

In Shealy's view, suggested engineered fixes underestimate a skier's impact of flight and the variability of snow.

"The problem here is you're not dealing with something like steel or iron or concrete. You're dealing with a very malleable, changeable substance," said Shealy, speaking from his Rochester, N.Y., office. "Even if we had some magic formula -- and frankly I don't believe there is one -- within a day or two the jump is likely to be very different."

But ski areas around the country have floated basic guidelines since terrain parks became popular a decade ago.

In 1999, a Vermont ski area drafted guidelines demanding that jump designers do the math to prevent crashes like those that injured Salvini and killed Melrose. Nine years later, no national standards have been adopted.

Such standards could make terrain parks safer without sacrificing the jumps, said Mont Hubbard, an engineering professor at the University of California-Davis and an expert witness for Salvini during the trial.

"It would not be difficult at all," Hubbard said. "What I'd like to do is get the skiing industry to understand these ideas. Once they understand them, I can't see how they can't accept them."

Until the Salvini verdict, area operators had little financial incentive to do so. In most states, ski areas can't be held liable for injuries on the slope.

Salvini wouldn't have received a penny had he been injured in Oregon, Idaho or most other states with so-called ski safety laws, Connelly said. Regardless, Salvini and his lawyers won't be paid until Booth Creek exhausts its appeals, a process that can take more than five years.

Salvini said he hopes the jury's verdict in his case will force area operators to look hard at how they're building terrain parks.

Barring a medical breakthrough, his paralysis is permanent.

"You go from being 23 and having your whole life ahead of you, then you wake up in the hospital," he said.

"It's pretty daunting."

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By LEVI PULKKINEN