By James Baldwin, MS & Michael S. Carroll, PhD
On the morning of Dec. 29, 2016, a Texas mother and her two daughters attended Granby Ski Ranch in Colorado to spend the day skiing. Around 930 am, under partly cloudy skies and calm conditions, they boarded the Quick Draw Express chairlift to take them up the ski slope. The three of them loaded the four-person chair without incident and proceeded uphill as passengers. The normal ride which should take a few minutes became a horrific event that resulted in the death of Mrs. Huber and catastrophic injuries to her two daughters. The chairlift they were riding on experienced repeated sudden bursts of excessive speed and subsequent emergency stoppage, causing violent swinging of the carriage units (i.e., the chairs). This process of excessive speed and stoppage continued with increased swinging effects due to the repeated nature of the phenomenon to the chairs along the lift line. The chair (No. 58) on which Mrs. Huber and her daughters were sitting subsequently struck a lift tower. Eyewitnesses on chairs ahead and behind No. 58 (one of which was a ski patroller) reported that the chairs were violently swinging forward and sideways, with no chance to correct because of the repeated speeding up and sudden stops. These forces combined to create a chairlift that could not be controlled by its operators and that resulted in dangerous conditions for its passengers. Upon striking the lift tower, Mrs. Huber and her two daughters fell some 25 feet to the hard-packed snow below.
The fall from the chair was catastrophic. Mrs. Huber fell holding one of her daughters as her other daughter fell to the hard packed snow. Upon impact, Mrs. Huber went into immediate cardiac arrest and sustained injuries that ultimately proved fatal, as she passed away at the hospital from a ruptured aorta. Her two daughters sustained impact injuries including multiple fractures and internal trauma. The collisions were so violent that the helmets the two girls were wearing sustained multiple cracks. The victims were evacuated from the ski area to nearby medical facilities, and Mrs. Huber was pronounced dead sometime after her admission.
Subsequent investigation of the accident revealed layers of omission within the Granby Ski Ranch’s lift maintenance procedures and protocols, including the key point of contracting a less than qualified electrician to perform crucial installations of a new drive and control system. The Quick Draw Express lift was inspected and approved more than a week prior to the lift’s opening by the Colorado Tramway Safety Board, the state’s regulatory agency for ski lifts and aerial trams. The lift opened to the public just days after the inspection and approval.
When people arrive at a ski area they should expect protection from injury while using the ski lifts. The present case alleges a ski lift malfunction, causing one adult fatality and severe injuries to two minors. The surviving spouse has filed in behalf of his two minor daughters for pre-majority medical expense and pre-majority economic damages. The lawsuit points to the faulty electrical drive and control system of the ski lift at Ski Granby Ranch, CO. These components were maintained and serviced by an independent contractor in the months leading up to the accident. The accident occurred when the speed of the ski lift suddenly accelerated and rapidly stopped repeatedly, causing some chairs to swing violently. This case seeks to determine the negligence of the ski area owners, Granby Realty Holdings in the maintenance and operation of the Quick Draw Express lift at the Granby Ski Ranch ski area on Dec. 29, 2016, resulting in the death of his wife, Kelly Huber, and severe injuries to his two daughters from a fall after a chair-strike to a lift tower as a result of electrical drive and control malfunctions stemming from incorrect maintenance techniques from a sub-contractor. The complaint and Jury Demand was filed in United States District Court (Colorado) Dec. 15, 2017. The plaintiff seeks a jury trial and subsequent damages commensurate to the fatality of Mrs. Huber and injuries to her two daughters as a result of negligent actions on behalf of the ski area owners, designers, managers and operators.
Under Colorado law, the primary responsibility for the design, construction, maintenance, operation, and inspection of the ski lift rests with the area operator of the passenger lift devices. As a result, Granby Realty was in a special relationship with Mrs. Huber and her daughters to provide safe passage on the ski lift. The case alleges Mrs. Huber and her daughters were victims of negligence of the ski area, its owners and agents/operators. Their injuries were not a result of their own negligence, actions, or a failure to comply with a ski area’s rules or regulations. The case submits that Granby Ski Ranch knew of prior mechanical problems with the Quick Draw Express lift in the days leading up to the event and that these issues were reported to various operators, managers, and lift maintenance personnel with no reasonable or prudent response. For instance, two engineers who were skiing at this property a week before this tragic this incident reported concerns about problems with the Quick Draw Express chairlift, describing intense swinging and bouncing that was out of the ordinary. In another instance, two days prior to Mrs. Huber’s death, a mother took her children skiing at Ski Granby Ranch noted that the Quick Draw Express lift “stopped and swayed often,” with persistent speeding up and slowing down, causing guests to have difficulty exiting the lift at the top. The mother’s son reported his concerns to a Ski Granby Ranch employee, but was assured that the lift was fine. Further, the operators of the lift, those who run the machine on a day-to-day basis, were negligent in their failure to stop the lift and not allow use by the public when it malfunctioned in those days prior to the accident. As agents for the ski area owners and managers, these front-line workers failed in their duty of care to the safe passage of guests when they decided to continually operate the Quick Draw Express lift in the days leading up to and including that fateful day the malfunctioning lift caused the death of Mrs. Huber and the severe injuries to her two children.
The Colorado Public Tramway Safety Board (PTSB) conducted an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the Quick Drawl Express chairlift malfunction and determined that there were no outside influences (e.g., wind, tree contact, etc.) or passenger misconduct that contributed to the deadly incident. The PTSB Investigative Team attempted to replicate the events that led to Mrs. Huber’s death and noted that the ski lift chairs were swinging so violently between towers that the test was stopped before the lift was damaged. The PTSB Investigative Team concluded that the electric drive modifications and rapid changes in the lift speed were both contributing factors to the tragic event that killed Kelly Huber and injured her daughters. The investigative team furthermore concluded that the performance of the new electric drive was the primary cause of this tragedy and that the existing configuration of the electronic drive and its low-voltage system were unsafe for public operation.
Conclusion and Thoughts
This case is a request for a jury trial and is pending. Based on the evidence, it would be in the best interest of the Granby Ski Ranch) to attempt a settlement with Mr. Huber. There can be no challenge to any contributory factors from Mrs. Huber or her daughters’ conduct or behavior that would have caused their chair to swing violently, stop suddenly, and repeat that process to cause them to fall. There appears to be ample evidence of a problem with the Quick Draw Express ski lift prior to this tragic instance. This case points to the ski area being found negligent, liable, and therefore responsible for any damages a court would award.
Huber v. Granby Realty Holdings, d/b/a Granby Ski Ranch, 1:17-cv 03024 USDC Colorado 1-35 (Colorado 2017).
James “Jimbo” Baldwin is a retired physical education teacher with extensive experience in the ski industry’s mountain operation departments. With a Master’s degree in Recreation, Sports and Tourism from the University of Illinois focusing on ski area sustainability, Jimbo’s doctoral research continues to seek improvements in ski area safety, risk management, loss prevention and operational sustainability within a climate change context. He currently works at Taos Ski Valley, NM in the trail maintenance, snowmaking and lift operations department. He resides in Taos, NM.
Michael S. Carroll is an Associate Professor of Sport Management at Troy University specializing in research related to sport law and risk management in sport and recreation. He has published over 30 articles and delivered over 50 presentations at professional conferences. He lives in Orlando, FL.