The family of a man who died in February 2020 after becoming entangled in a Vail ski area chairlift with a raised seat has settled its wrongful death lawsuit with Vail Resorts.
Jason Varnish was boarding the Blue Sky chairlift on Feb. 13, 2020, when the chair came around with its seat not lowered. His buddy was knocked away from the chairlift but Varnish’s jacket snagged on a part of the chair frame. Varnish, a 46-year-old father of three from New Jersey, was hanging from the chair about 10 feet off the ground just beyond the loading zone for about 8 minutes.
His jacket wrapped around his torso and a coroner determined he died of positional asphyxiation.
Varnish’s children sued the ski area, arguing the ski area was negligent. The lawsuit claimed Vail ski area did not properly train rescue workers in chairlift evacuation procedures. The family also claimed the ski area violated resort responsibility rules for chairlifts outlined in the Colorado Ski Safety Act as well as regulations enforced by the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board.
The ski area argued its waiver and liability releases that were part of Varnish’s ski pass and ski gear rental agreement prevented the family from suing or any financial settlement. The argument that resorts should not have total liability from those fine-print waivers required for the purchase ski passes and lift tickets has been tested in several cases. The family of a Texas woman who died following a fall from a Ski Granby Ranch chairlift in 2018 last year settled with the ski area before a trial in early 2022.
The ski resort industry rarely loses those cases and the Colorado Ski Safety Act caps wrongful death lawsuit claims at $250,000. The Colorado Ski Safety Act outlines many inherent risks of skiing, which include natural terrain, snow, weather and avalanches. Skiers can not sue ski areas over issues with the inherent risks of skiing.
The settlement details between Vail and the Varnish family were not disclosed.
Peter Burg with the Burg Simpson plaintiff trial law firm in Denver said in a statement that Varnish’s death was preventable due to a “failure in training and procedures” to evacuate someone hanging from a chairlift.
“It is also time for the legislature and courts to stop allowing the ski industry to feel fully insulated from any liability through the use of waivers of liability for things that clearly are not inherent risks of skiing,” Burg said in the statement. “It does a disservice to the ski community. Accountability is critical to public safety.”
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