A former Delaware state senator has filed suit against Sugarloaf Mountain and its parent companies nearly three years after he and his two daughters plummeted 35 feet when the chairlift they were riding derailed.
Michael Katz, who suffered a broken back and traumatic brain injury from the fall, was the most seriously injured of eight people hurt in the Dec. 28, 2010, accident at the Carrabassett Valley ski resort. He is the only victim to take Sugarloaf Mountain to court. Other people hurt in the fall have already reached undisclosed, out-of-court resolutions with Sugarloaf.
Attorney Benjamin Gideon, whose law firm, Berman & Simmons in Lewiston, represented five of the people hurt in the accident, said he filed the lawsuit in Franklin County Superior Court on Tuesday on Katz’s behalf after negotiations with Sugarloaf Mountain representatives in his case ended unsuccessfully.
Sugarloaf Mountain spokesman Ethan Austin said the resort had tried to avoid going to court in Katz’s case, but the lawsuit didn’t come as a surprise.
“We’ve been working with everybody who’s been involved in the accident since day one, including Mr. Katz,” Austin said, adding that talks with other injured parties ended with resolutions. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do that in this case.”
Katz and his wife, Patricia, who own a home near the base of Sugarloaf Mountain, also sued on behalf of their daughters, Abigail and Emily, who were 13 and 11 at the time of the accident and were riding in the chair behind their father. They are seeking an unspecified amount of money in damages, claiming that Sugarloaf Mountain was negligent in operating the Spillway East chairlift despite knowledge of its safety hazards and failed to inspect and maintain the chairlift and train employees to operate it safely.
A clerk at Franklin County Superior Court said the complaint had not yet been processed at the courthouse. But Sugarloaf’s attorney, Evan Hansen of the Portland law firm Preti Flaherty, said he had received and read it. Tuesday was the final day for Katz to file the suit after a deadline extension.
“Abigail was thrown from the chair after impact, while Emily was dragged up the mountain by the lift because a piece of Emily’s ski equipment was stuck in the chair,” according to a copy of the 12-page complaint shared with the Press Herald. “Abigail and Emily could see their father lying motionless in the snow after the collapse, and their immediate thought was that he had been killed.”
Abigail, who is now 16, suffered vertebrae fractures in the fall. She and Emily, now 14, both suffered head injuries.
Shortly before the accident, lift operators had stopped Spillway East to make an adjustment to realign a wire rope that held the 161 chairs off the ground. The adjustment was made to get the rope to run evenly through sheave grooves. Between 5 and 10 seconds after the lift was restarted, the rope slipped out, plunging the two-seat chairs to the ground, according to an investigative report of the accident by the Maine Board of Elevator and Tramway Safety.
“The Katz family had to spend time understanding what the nature of the injuries was and to recover medically and put their lives back in order after this happened,” Gideon said in a telephone interview. “I think for all of them, there will be some lasting effects for the rest of their lives.”
Gideon said he thinks one of the important details in the lawsuit is that Sugarloaf Mountain is named as the final defendant in the case, after the names of four out-of-state real estate, investment and management companies that run Sugarloaf.
“The idea that this is a mom-and-pop, Maine-run business is just not the case. We think there were warning signs at the Spillway chairlift dating back a number of years,” Gideon said. “Five chairs fell completely to the ground. Of the 10 people who fell, eight were injured. There were over 300 people on the lift. You’re talking about as many people as are on a 737 airline.”
In addition to Sugarloaf Mountain, Katz’s suit names as defendants CNL Lifestyles Properties, a Maryland company operating out of Florida that owns the resort; two Delaware-based asset companies; and Boyne USA, one of the nation’s largest ski resort operators, which leases Sugarloaf and manages the business.
“Those who had the ability to do this and spend the money to prevent this from occurring were the out-of-state investors who were pulling the purse strings at Sugarloaf,” Gideon said.
Sugarloaf removed the 35-year-old Spillway East chairlift months after the accident and replaced it with the modern Skyline Quad in December 2011. As Maine’s tallest winter resort, Sugarloaf is the nation’s largest ski area east of the Rockies. Its 15 lifts can transport 21,810 skiers per hour, according to the resort’s website.
Scott Dolan can be reached at 791-6304 or at: