Ski conditions here and across the rest of New England are expected to be good this winter, but fewer trails will be open and lift tickets will be more expensive.
Operators of ski areas across the six-state region are being hit hard by rising liability insurance rates, hard because of the settlement of what has been called the largest liability claim against operators of a ski area. In that suit, quadriplegic James Sunday won $1.5 million from the Stratton Mountain operation in Vermont.
Warren Pearson, who runs the Wilderness lower ski area in DixvilleNotch, said, "The consumer really lost that case. The cost of increased insurance is going to be passed right along through the lift tickets."
Pearson runs one of the smaller ski areas in New Hampshire. He has managed to stay open because New Hampshire has a new, comprehensive liability law that spells out what risks skiers accept when they strap on the boards and what responsibilities ski areas must assume.
The law narrows down the opportunity for people to sue," Pearson said. "It says the skier must understand that conditions change because of weather and there's no way the management can produce 100 percent perfect snow."
David Currier, manager of Pat's Peak in Henniker, N.H., said, "New Hampshire has always been a leader in ski legislation, and with this law we've been taken another step." He believes the 14-page ski law covering everything from gondolas to trail markings should help keep most areas in business.
Pat's Peak, a medium-sized area, may pay as much as $50,000 for liability coverage during the coming season. "But in places like Massachusetts and Vermont they've got wicked rates," Currier said, "and they are only going to go up."
Vermont ski operations are apprehensive because they must rely on a ski liability law that is much less detailed. As Cathy Thompson of the Vermont Ski Area Operators Association said, "The operators, especially at the smaller areas, are very discouraged." Some are so discouraged they've gone out of business.
"A few of the smaller areas, the ones that usually open for weekends, had to shut down," Thompson said. "They just couldn't get insurance."
She said Vermont's new ski law won't go into effect for three years. once it's on the books and tested in the courts "things may open up for the smaller areas to operate again."
The Sunday vs. Stratton Mountain case involved a skier who charged he was felled by brush in the trail. He tumbled, landed against a rock, and was paralyzed. Thompson points out that the jury "didn't have a skier on it."
In a decision that surprised the ski industry, the court ruled the area was responsible for the trail hazard. Stratton officials have yet to agree that the brush was in the trail.
Thompson said most skiers "accept the inherent risk of the sport." Many areas now print a risk warning on the back of lift tickets. "Pretty soon all the areas will do that," she said, "It's not binding legally, but it's a warning." She said a recent survey found just one skier in a thousand did not accept the inherent risks.
According to Richard Williams, whose insurance agency wrote the Stratton policy, "Over the past few yeaers, the ski industry has seen a tremendous increase in insurance costs. It's been at least 100 percent. Insurance is a tremendous operating expense and the whole industry is seriously concerned."
Ski-area operation premiums can be as low as a few thousand dollars a year or higher than $100,000.
Williams' agency serves more than 300 ski areas nationwide. Although the number of suits filed against operators has not risen dramatically, Williams said, "there has been a tremendous increase in the cost of claims, the amount they're asking for."
He insists the problem is not just a downhill phenomenon. "It's what's happening in America. More people are suing doctors, lawyers, businesses and now ski areas," he said.
Most ski-area operators said the experienced skier accepts the risks of the sport. But with the increased value of liability claims, operators are making efforts to improve trail markings and standardize ski-condition reports.
"All of the adjectives" have been removed from New England ski reports, Thompson said. Trail conditions will be described by the depth of new snow, the number of trails open at a resort and the amount of man-made snow available.
"Trails will be marked uniformly," she said."The signs will simply say 'easier, more difficult and difficult.'" Dr. Robert O'Mally, a founder of Mount Om Ski Area in Holyoke, Mass., said resorts "have been working harder at grooming trails, and the result has been a much-improved safety record." Mount Tom offers free checks to avoid accidents caused by unsafe bindings. O'Mally said of every 10 skiers, one schusses with unsafe bindings.