By Brad Farmer
At this year’s 12th Annual TransWorld Snowboarding Industry Conference (dubbed the Wilderness Survival Camp and sponsored by Northern Boarder, Red Bull, Zumiez, and Alyeska Price Resort) held in Alyeska, Alaska, the terrain park discussions started with the “Resort Industry Fireside Chat” moderated by Kurt Hoy, special issues editor for Transworld Media.
It was obvious, off the bat, what was on the mind of most participantes: terrain park liability. The often times emotional fireside discussion brought up several liability issues, including the important topic of inconsistencies within the industry that are causing those attempting to defend lawsuits serious grief. It was ironic that the topic took so much time, since the conference’s scheduled terrain park seminar was happening the next day.
That workshop titled “The Future Of Terrain Parks” was conducted by a panel that included Tim White, director of education for the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA); Mark Patrozzi, vice president of risk management for Booth Creek Resorts; Jeff Boliba, resort and Learn To Ride manager for Burton Snowboards; and moderator Chris “Gunny” Gunnarson, director of snowboarding for Snow Summit resort and owner of Snow Park Technologies.
Gunny opened the seminar by explaining the work he’s currently doing as an expert defense witness in legal cases being brought against resorts. He briefly went on to discuss the fact that some industry associations have taken it upon themselves to post detailed yet inaccurate descriptions of terrain parks and terrain features on their Web sites, giving plaintiff attorneys misguided information that they are then using against resorts. He went on to say this misinformation is helping the growing possibility that terrain parks could disappear overnight, similar to what happened to skate parks in the 70s.
Tim White offered a historical perspective that provided some explanation of how the industry ended up at such an uncertain crossroads. He described the following: In the mid-70s the ski industry instituted a no-jumping policy at resorts around the country. Ski Patrol policed the slopes, quickly destroying skier-built jumps and pulling lift tickets of those who chose to engage in such activities.
It was during this time that the first-ever lawsuit brought against a resort was slapped on Stratton Ski Resort in Vermont after a skier was seriously injured upon striking a tree branch. The plaintiff won the case and Stratton was forced to pay out over one-million dollars in damages.
This case lead resorts to look seriously into risk management and to declare the “inherent risks of skiing” as a defense in the face of a very hardened insurance market. A stern crackdown on reckless skiing in the late 70s and early 80s was in full effect just in time for the introduction of snowboarding, which would change everything.
Snowboarders immediately defied the no-jumping policies and were seen by skiers as reckless, thus most resorts resisted its initial growth and acceptance. A few forward-thinking resort managers quickly realized snowboarding wasn’t going away and it could be an opportunity to attract a younger generation seeking the rush of the new sport.
This idea quickly gave way to the formation of the first terrain parks, which were looked at by resort managers as areas to put snowboarders to keep them out of the way of skiers.
And just like that, jumping was not only allowed again, it was encouraged. The evolution has continued and today a majority of resorts in the United States offer terrain parks, with approximately 230 across the country now available to freestyle enthusiasts.
According to the NSAA, 65 percent of resorts now offer halfpipes, 70 percent have snowboarder-targeted advertising, and 80 percent host snowboarding events.
Currently the ski industry finds itself dealing with a snowboarding population that has doubled in the last five years and now makes up almost 30 percent of all resort visits nationwide. But in the post-September 11th world, suddenly insurance costs have skyrocketed at the same time the resorts are seeing a growing number of lawsuits being brought against them because of terrain park injuries.
Mark Patrozzi began his discussion saying, “First of all I want everyone to know that Booth Creek is committed to providing terrain parks to our customers. We understand that they hold the core energy present at our resorts and they are vital to our success.”
He went on to explain that there are now three lawsuits pending against resorts directly related to injuries sustained during use of freestyle terrain. The successful defense of all three cases could be enough to protect the industry for several years to come, however, if one goes sour it could affect the industry in ways that are currently unimaginable.
“The current lawsuits, coupled with a 60-billion-dollar insurance restriction (post September 11th) leads us to a difficult situation looking at 100- to 500-percent increases in insurance premiums and underwriters are getting far more involved in selecting good risks versus bad risks,” said Patrozzi.
He further explained the growing possibility that insurance companies will begin to exclude terrain parks from normal operation coverage. This change would force resorts to buy separate insurance at higher rates with higher deductibles and likely require them to provide proof that they’re operating safe parks.
Another far worse scenario would result if terrain parks and features were classified as products provided by resorts, as it’s far more difficult to defend product liability lawsuits. Patrozzi wrapped it up by saying, “We need to take definitive care in our investigation and documentation of accidents, memorializing facts, and then using that information to educate juries that the terrain element is not the problem, but rather what the rider chooses to do with the element is the problem.”
Safety and education are the main battlefront of the terrain park liability issue that the whole industry should take responsibility for and work proactively towards improving. Currently Burton Snowboard Company is the only business outside of the resort industry to realize this dilemma is going to affect its business as much or more than resorts if it goes south.
The NSAA and Burton have been working together on the Smart Style Park Safety Initiative. The final speaker on the panel, Jeff Boliba, explained, “This program is designed to provide simple, consistent messages about terrain park safety that anyone can use to educate riders.”
Boliba has traveled around to several resorts seeking feedback on the program and over 600 CD’s containing the new signage and safety messages have been mailed out to resorts. While not everyone yet agrees on the message, it’s a good start and a tremendous initiative on the part of Burton.
The many voices of the post-panel discussion, which resulted in the panel running way over the allotted time, seemed to have a twitch of nervousness in their voices as the discussion continued. Topics included creating a consistent message to be used to educate riders based on Burton’s lead and once an agreed-upon educational message is established, many agreed to work towards including it in future videos, magazines, stickers, flyers, and tags.
Several individuals involved in the discussion agreed to hold future meetings and to form an action group to be headed by Tim White through the NSAA. The first meeting will take place at the NSAA annual conference the morning of May 22, 2002 as part of the safety committee meeting. The action group will include anyone in the industry who wants to be involved.
If you and/or your organization would like to be involved and r
eceive updates on the progress of the action group please contact Tim White by phone at: (303) 987-1111, or e-mail: email@example.com.
For more information on the terrain park liability and safety issues check out the two-part article “Will the Terrain Park Evolution Continue” found in the October and November 2001 issues of TransWorld SNOWboarding Business.