By CYRIL TUOHY, managing editor of Risk & Insurance®
In Europe, the joke among the skiing community many years ago about the reliability of aging ski lifts went something like this:
The Swiss or the Austrians--whichever you prefer, either of whose reputation for all things winter is irreproachable--built a billion-dollar ski industry exploiting their beautiful Alps. They did this by manufacturing state-of-the-art trams and cables. Swiss resorts inspected the lifts regularly and overhauled the hardware at the first sign of mechanical or structural wear. The equipment lasted for years, even decades.
When the time came to upgrade and replace the lifts, the Swiss resorts gladly rid themselves of their used equipment and passed it on to the French, who used the equipment for several more years, and then passed on the equipment to the Italians.
The Italians gladly strung the third-hand equipment among the majestic peaks of the Dolomites, and when it was time to say arrivederci, they turned around and sold the cables and the cable cars to the Spanish for a spin in the Pyrenees, a smaller and far lower mountain range.
By now, the dangling rickshaws--more than 30 years old and whose manufacturers weren't necessarily in business any longer--were ready to be sold yet again, but to whom? None other than the Yugoslavs, as the story goes.
So, depending on where you were skiing, you either had nothing to fear, or you risked your life riding into the Alpine heavens in a deathtrap. I don't know if the stories were ever true, but they made for or lively chit-chat among skiers on the rides up.
For tens of millions of skiers, riding to the roofs of Europe was worth the risk. But every so often, we read about stories of hapless skiers plunging to horrific deaths after trams come off the cables or cables snapped altogether.
Derailment and chairs falling to the ground weren't what skiers expected on Dec. 28, when they were riding up Sugarloaf Mountain's Spillway East chairlift in Maine. That's exactly what happened, though, when a cable came off Tower 8, and chairs on the cable between pylons seven and nine dropped to the ground below. Eight skiers were injured. No one was killed.
Lift operators were in the midst of offloading passengers in preparation of closing the lift because of high winds when the incident happened.
The Spillway East lift, manufactured in 1975 by a company called Borvig, had recently passed an inspection but was scheduled to be replaced, according to news reports published Dec. 29. Borvig's patents, along with Borvig's successor, Partek Ski Lifts, were purchased by ski lift manufacturer Doppelmayr CTEC in 2005, which itself became the Doppelmayr/Garaventa Group four years later.
Ski resorts, many owned by larger skiing corporations, are digging into records to find out if the makers of the lifts they operate are still in business, said Bob Murphy, practice leader for Marsh's sports and global events practice.
"The ride maker is responsible, but if it's out of business, does it come back to the resort even though the resort isn't responsible? That's what resorts are talking to their counsel about," Murphy said.
Courts across the country--in Vermont, Colorado and California--"have been very consistent" in applying a "common law duty of highest care when it comes to operation of lifts," Murphy also said.
In Fisher v. Mt. Mansfield Co. Inc., an appeals court upheld a lower court's finding of negligence against the ski company, which was sued for failure of a gate attendant to help a skier get off the lift. A later case, Hunt v. Sun Valley, also found "strict liability" against the resort, Murphy said. Both cases, he explained, "held that the owner and operator of the lifts operate as a common carrier and hold strict liability."
Deadly lift accidents are rare. One incident in 1976 killed four people in Vail, Colo., and another in 1978 in Squaw Valley, Calif., also killed four people, according to the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA). Two more people were killed in 1985 when 60 people were thrown off a lift in Colorado, according to a BestWire Services published Dec. 31.
Since 1973, according to the NSAA, lift accidents have killed 12 people. That comes to less than one death, on average, every three years.
January 11, 2011
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