At least five of the skiers who fell when a chairlift derailed at the Sugarloaf Mountain Resort have retained a law firm to represent them in potential injury claims, according to a Lewiston-based attorney.

They appear to be the first people injured in the accident to explore a legal claim, which could test a three-decade-old Maine law that often protects ski resorts from legal responsibility for more common accidents.

The five potential plaintiffs include two of the most seriously injured skiers and members of their families who were hurt when their chairs fell as far as 35 feet to the snow.

A total of eight injured skiers were treated at hospitals after the Spillway East chairlift derailed Dec. 28.

Sugarloaf workers had decided to empty, then shut down, the lift because of misaligned cable when the cable derailed and five chairs hit the snow. The accident remains under investigation and the lift remains closed for additional testing this week, a Sugarloaf spokesman said.

Benjamin Gideon, an attorney with Berman & Simmons in Lewiston, said his firm is notifying Sugarloaf this week that it represents the five skiers and that any contact with them should be directed to the firm. Gideon said he could not provide any details of the injuries or the size of any potential claim.

“All five sought medical attention, some more serious than others,” he said. “The first step is to conduct a thorough investigation (of the cause). In this case, there is an investigation ongoing by the agency responsible for inspecting the lifts.”

A Sugarloaf spokesman said the resort had not heard from Gideon or any other lawyer representing skiers injured in the accident.

“We’ve been in touch with everybody who was on the lift, including everybody who was injured. We’re working with them and addressing their concerns and needs as best as we can on an individual basis,” said Ethan Austin.

He said he could not provide any more details about those discussions or the resort’s legal responsibilities.

“We do have liability insurance through a number of different sources for injury cases like this,” he said.

The skiers who retained Berman & Simmons include Michael Katz, a Delaware state senator, and his two young daughters.

Katz, a 48-year-old anesthesiologist who once attended Bates College in Lewiston, was considered the most seriously injured skier after the fall. He was taken by helicopter to Maine Medical Center in Portland and was admitted for treatment.

Two children were among the seven people who were taken to Franklin Memorial Hospital in Farmington, although their names and the nature of their injuries have not been released.

“The chairs fell to the ground,” Katz told The News Journal of Delaware this week. “I would prefer not to go into the details of the medical details. … We really are focusing on the family privacy and just allowing everybody to heal.”

Katz and his wife own a home near the base of Sugarloaf, in Carrabassett Valley, although he is now at home in Delaware, according to an aide. He has not returned calls from MaineToday Media.

Katz told The News Journal that he is walking slowly, but intended to be in Dover on Tuesday for the start of the 2011 legislative session.

“I wouldn’t miss the first day,” said Katz, who plans to be back at his medical practice later this week.

The other two skiers who retained Berman & Simmons are Rick Tonge of Belgrade and his son, Andy. They were riding in the last chair that passed a tower halfway up Spillway East before the cable derailed at that tower.

Rick Tonge, 54, an investment adviser, was taken to Franklin Memorial Hospital, X-rayed and released. He suffered a muscle injury and is gradually getting back to normal activity, he said, although he is not yet ready to ski again.

His 25-year-old son was among the most seriously injured, and was taken by ambulance to Maine Med.

Andy Tonge suffered compression fractures in two vertebrae and spent two days in the Portland hospital, his father said. He is now wearing a brace to immobilize his spine and, after an extra week recuperating at his parents’ home, has returned to Baltimore to pursue a doctorate in engineering.

“He’ll be in a brace for 12 weeks,” Rick Tonge said. “He’s functional. He’s back at school. He’s stiff.”

Tonge said he could not discuss potential legal claims.

“I don’t want to talk to about what we may or may not do because we haven’t decided anything yet. We’re trying to heal first,” he said.

Tonge said he and his son have medical insurance that is covering some of their costs. He also said Sugarloaf officials called him after the accident and before he retained the law firm.

“We had a couple conversations with (Sugarloaf officials),” he said. “I think we’re pretty conscious of the risk we think we’re taking (in skiing), and that involves trees and other skiers and that stuff. You don’t expect the chair to try and kill you.”

Maine law that dates to the late 1970s says skiers accept inherent risks, and it protects ski resorts from lawsuits in the vast majority of injury cases, lawyers said. On the other hand, the law specifically says resorts are responsible for maintenance and safe operation of the lifts.

Tonge said he feels lucky that there was soft powder under Spillway East when he and his son fell.

“Hey, we’re on the right side of the daisies,” he said.

 

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at: jrichardson@pressherald.com