January 4, 2011

Experts: Lift's fall unlikely to hurt business

By John Richardson jrichardson@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

(Continued from page 1)

click image to enlarge

The chairlift derailment on Tuesday didn' t stop skiers from hitting the slopes on Wednesday at Sugarloaf in Carrabassett Valley.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

SUGARLOAF DATA

Location: Carrabassett Valley

Height: At 4,237 feet, Maine’s second highest mountain

Base elevation: 1,400 feet

Total resort area: 7,000 acres

Trail network: 54 miles, including 133 trails

Trail classification: 26 percent beginner, 31 percent intermediate, 27 percent advanced, 16 percent expert. Offers only lift-serviced, above-treeline skiing in the East

Total number of lifts: 15

Greg Sweetser, executive director of the Ski Maine Association, said he doesn't expect any long-term business effect.

"I've been in the Maine ski business since 1978," Sweetser said. "An incident like this hasn't occurred during my career, which just points to the fact that it is extremely unusual."

Sweetser said he doesn't expect the accident to keep skiers away during the school vacation this week, or during the College Snowfest next week.

"My son is skiing at Sugarloaf today," he said. "If I had even a hint of concern, his mother and I wouldn't have him go there. I've been in the business a long time, and I know the care that goes into it."

Sweetser said resorts inspect lifts daily. State inspectors check them at the start of each season, and the resorts' insurance companies typically do safety inspections during the season, he said. "For the ski operations, lifts are the No. 1 priority."

It's unclear whether the accident will lead to any lawsuits.

Maine law says skiers cannot sue for damage related to "the inherent dangers and risks" of skiing. However, the law specifically allows lawsuits related to negligence, including "the negligent design, construction, operation or maintenance of a passenger tramway."

Claims are not uncommon when resorts don't adequately mark trails or hazards where someone is injured, said Peter Thompson, a Portland-based personal injury attorney. The lift derailment might lead to one or more lawsuits, he said, but they would be much more complicated and expensive cases and so might not be attempted unless injuries are severe.

If Tuesday's strong wind is found to be an important factor in the accident, for example, liability could depend on how much wind the lift was built to withstand and what the industry standards are for operating in windy conditions, he said.

"There's going to be an examination of why it happened," Thompson said. "The ski resort was very quick to say the proper inspections were done, but there could have been something ... that should have been dealt with and wasn't."

Sugarloaf would be insured for any liability, he said. "They have claims brought against them every year dealing with very serious injuries, and obviously they are still in business."

The bigger issue, according to Thompson, is the public perception of safety at the resort.

"A lot of people just have general fears about getting on chairlifts, and I can certainly see (they) would be somewhat reluctant," he said. "At the same time, this is such an aberration that those people who are die-hard skiers, I don't think it would change their plans to go up there."

 

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