THE SKI INSTRUCTOR IN LITIGATION
Published in The Professional Skier, 1991-1992
by Chuck Roberts
PSIA Level III Certified
If you think that as a ski instructor you are relatively immune from
litigation involving skiing accidents, guess again. Every year ski areas,
ski schools and ski instructors are sued as a result of an accident
sustained by a skier, whether in a class or not. Plaintiffs (the person
doing the suing) bring causes of action (suits) against
ski instructors (the defendants, the person being sued)
complaining of several counts of professional negligence such
as improper instruction, failure to teach a certain skill,
taking a student over difficult terrain, etc.
Some legal actions against ski instructors may have merit, others do
not. The outcome of a legal action against an instructor
or ski school can be significantly
influenced by the instructor both before and after the lawsuit is filed.
This article reviews typical accident scenarios, complaints against
ski instructors, what the ski instructor can do to reduce the
chance of legal action and some thoughts on what to expect if involved in a
proceeding. The case studies are based on actual lawsuits filed
against ski instructors and their respective ski schools.
A legal action against a ski instructor or
ski school usually stems from an accident involving a skier in a ski
class. The student falls or collides with a noncompliant object
resulting in significant injury. There are some instances where the accident
or situation occurred outside the class. In one case a novice skier
was free skiing and fell, breaking a leg. He brought a legal action against
the ski instructor, charging that the ski instructor did not teach him how to
Another case involved a ski instructor free skiing who collided
with another skier on the slope. A court action resulted.
A third case involved a beginning skier who fell in a class. She
brought an action against the ski instructor claiming that the terrain was
too difficult for her to negotiate and that the ski instructor
should have made a more
There are cases where the inappropriate behavior of a ski instructor is
obvious (1). A young uncertified ski instructor decided to teach a beginning
(first time) alpine
skier a kick turn at the top of the beginner hill. The instructor showed the
student how to perform the kick turn. The student proceeded and after
completing one half of the turn, started to slide down the hill, fell
and sustained a severe knee injury with 30% permanent disability.
SKI INSTRUCTOR INFLUENCES
Behavior of the ski instructor during a situation can significantly affect
the outcome of a legal action. Ski school procedural manuals typically
deal with accident situations in the class. Usually they recommend that after
an accident has occurred the ski patrol should be immediately notified and
the injured skier comforted. In most cases,
the ski patrol should handle skier first aid
and transport. The purpose of the ski patrol is to offer immediate
first aid, and they are usually more qualified as a result of their extensive
training. During the comforting phase, while waiting for the ski patrol
to arrive, a pleasant demeanor is encouraged. Avoid condescending
statements such as "too bad you fell on that icy spot" or "a lot of people
have fallen at that location - the ski patrol should have closed
off that area" or "I'm surprised your binding failed to release."
Lets look at how these seemingly benign comments can affect a legal action.
The comments on the icy spot imply a deficient condition on the
slope that caused the accident. The injured skier remembered the
comment and reported it
to her attorney. Since the ski instructor is looked upon
as an expert on skiing, the comment carried some weight and was used as a
basis for a claim against the ski area.
The comment regarding the binding implied that the binding was defective in
that it "failed" to release. During typical falls sustained by skiers, the
bindings may not release even though they may be set, mounted or designed
properly. The reason is that the forces passing through the binding system
may not have been of sufficient magnitude to cause release. Picture a skier
that rails an
edge and falls over laterally. This often results in binding non release
in properly set up binding systems.
Nevertheless the comment was used as a basis for a lawsuit against
the ski area rental operation despite the fact that the comment
had no technical basis.
During class several topics can be discussed that can help reduce the
of injury to students. Introduction of the Skier's Responsibility
Code (2) in the beginning classes, as well as a review of the
code in more advanced classes, helps make students more aware of skiing
safety. Following generic lesson content as promulgated
by PSIA in ATM manuals gives an authoritative basis for your
teaching. Should a suit arise concerning lesson content, having followed
generic lesson makeup can help your case. Any deviations from ATM
will have to be justified which in some cases may be detrimental to the ski
instructor. For instance do you think the instructor who taught
a kick turn on top of a beginner hill to a typical first
time student could justify this deviation
from the norm.
Plaintiff attorneys often use PSIA manuals as authoritative literature
to show that an instructor was negligent in not following the "book".
Selection of appropriate terrain is an important judgment call on the
part of the instructor. Obviously, overly challenging terrain
invites an increased chance of accidents and injuries in class.
Certification status can be a mitigating factor with respect to your
overall qualifications for teaching. Being certified (associate or full)
is viewed as being more qualified that an uncertified instructor.
If you are involved in a lawsuit regarding the ski school,
several things can happen. The case could be settled without
any further involvement on the part of the ski instructor.
If the case does not settle, then your deposition may be taken.
You will be required to appear before a court reporter and the
attorneys for both sides, at which time you will be answering
questions concerning the incident while under oath. This information results
in a document called a deposition transcript which can be used
during a trial. During the deposition, you may be asked to
explain how the accident occurred, review your teaching procedure or
comment on the appropriateness of your behavior after the accident.
It is not unusual for the plaintiff attorney to try to make you look
deficient in your class handling or class presentation and essentially
try to make you the "fall guy". A meeting with the defense attorney prior
to the deposition will help alert you to possible lines of questioning.
If the case does not settle after the deposition phase, a trial
may occur, during which you will have to testify in front of a jury
that probably has little knowledge of skiing and ski instruction.
An honest, professional and slightly humble demeanor will go
a long way toward effective testimony in the court room.
Ski instructors are held accountable for the conduct of
a ski school class. Politeness, common sense, and utilization of
recognized teaching methods go a long way to a successful and
meaningful learning experience. If an accident does happen, follow the
ski school procedure if possible and avoid commentary beyond your area
of expertise. Remember that your actions may require explanation
1. Roberts, C., "The Ski School and the Law (A Case History),
CPSIA Newsletter, 1982.
2. Schuster, W., "Risk Awareness and Skiing Safety in the Ski School",
PSIA Educational Foundation, October, 1979.