$30.8 Million – Ski Lift Maintenance Accident
$30.8 Million Verdict by Jeoffrey L. Robinson and Allan F. Davis:
Anderson v. Snow Valley‚ Inc.
A 42-year-old ski-lift maintenance supervisor sustained a traumatic amputation of both legs while performing maintenance on a chairlift at the Snow Valley Ski Area in San Bernardino‚ California. The plaintiff contended that the owner of the lift was negligent for its failure to record a similar accident in 1990, and for its failure to implement additional safety precautions to prevent a reoccurrence. A San Bernardino jury found in favor of the plaintiff and his wife‚ awarding them $30.8 million in damages.
Facts & Allegations:
In June 1998‚ plaintiff Craig Anderson was hired by Snow Valley LLC (“LLC”) to work at the Snow Valley Ski Resort in Running Springs‚ California‚ as a ski lift maintenance mechanic and supervisor. A separate company‚ defendant Snow Valley‚ Inc. (“INC”)‚ owned the resort‚ including its chairlifts‚ and held the permit to operate the resort issued by the U.S. Forest Service. In July‚ the State Tramway Board inspected the lifts at the resort and discovered 246 safety-related requirements that Anderson and his crew had to complete before the lifts could be permitted for operation in November. One of the safety requirements involved raising the 15-ton counterweight on chairlift No. 13. Each chairlift was equipped with a multi-ton counterweight that maintains tension on the “haul rope” that carries the passenger chairs up and down the mountain. On Nov. 6‚ 1998‚ Anderson and his crew were preparing the rigging for connection to a bulldozer to raise the weight when the chain supporting the counterweight slipped from a sprocket causing the weight to fall. The chain snapped back through the housing‚ pulled by the force of the falling weight and the high tension on the haul rope. The chain ripped through a small opening behind the sprocket‚ pulling the chain and cable into the sprocket housing. Anderson’s legs became entangled in the cable and clamps and were amputated when they were drawn into the steel-housing frame. The mechanics were unaware that the weight would fall since there was a large “locking pin” in place that held the sprocket in a fixed position. Anderson and his wife‚ plaintiff Laura Anderson‚ sued INC for their damages alleging that the defendant was negligent in regards to their ownership‚ maintenance and use of the chairlifts and ski resort‚ and for violation of the duties expressly set forth in the Ski Area Special Use Permit.
In November 1997‚ INC leased the ski operation to LLC but remained the owner of the ski area‚ the chairlifts and the equipment. The U.S. Forest Service issued a Ski Area Special Use Permit to the defendant INC based on a number of conditions, including one which provided that if the area was leased‚ the “holder” shall continue to be responsible for compliance with all conditions of the permit…”
The plaintiffs alleged the defendant knew of the danger associated with the maintenance procedure from a prior accident at the ski area eight years before Anderson’s accident‚ but had done nothing to prevent recurrence of the accident. For nearly two years after the plaintiffs’ complaint was filed‚ INC denied the existence of any prior accidents that were similar to Anderson’s. As a result‚ the focus of the plaintiffs’ investigation was on the potential liability of the lift manufacturer. In May of 2001‚ however‚ the thrust of the plaintiffs’ suit shifted to the defendant INC‚ the owner of the lifts‚ when the plaintiffs located two former INC lift mechanics who had been involved in a similar accident in 1990.
During trial‚ one of the former lift mechanics testified that the 1990 accident happened as he and his supervisor were preparing to adjust the counterweight on another an lift. After removing two retaining bolts on the frame of the sprocket housing‚ they lowered the chain to prepare it for connection to a bulldozer. As the chain was lowered‚ the counterweight crashed to the ground causing considerable damage to the lift. From that accident‚ INC was on notice that the counterweight could drop unexpectedly if the chain disengaged from the sprocket during the procedure. INC neglected to take appropriate action in response to that incident‚ such as making a record of the accident and implementing a training program to prevent a recurrence of the event. The plaintiffs’ mechanical engineering expert testified that after defendant’s 1990 incident‚ INC had a duty (i) to make a written record of the prior accident‚ (ii) to establish a written procedure for the lift design that would detail exactly how the adjustment procedure should be done safely and (iii) to prepare a warning sign so as to prevent future accidents.
During the trial‚ INC’s General Manager in 1990 testified that he considered the incident to be “very‚ very hazardous” and expected the incident to have been recorded. INC claimed they could not locate any record of the incident and three members of its management team at the resort in November 1998 testified that they had no knowledge of the prior incident‚ or of the danger in the maintenance procedure prior to the plaintiff’s accident. The Vice President of Operations testified that had he known of the earlier accident‚ he would have set up a proper training procedure‚ probably through the lift manufacturer‚ to prevent such an incident from happening again. INC‚ however‚ failed to establish they ever considered such a procedure or training program.
Additionally‚ the Andersons maintained that INC had lost a critical safety component of the counterweight system known as a “chain connector” that connects the cable to the roller chain. An engineer for the lift manufacturer testified that the connector was an essential safety component that was provided to INC when it was installed at the ski area. That component‚ however‚ was lost long before the accident. the plaintiffs’ reconstruction expert testified that had the connector been made available for Anderson to use‚ his amputation injuries would not have occurred since it would have prevented the cable and clamps from running up into the sprocket. INC’s loss of the chain connector‚ however‚ made it difficult for the plaintiffs to satisfy the elements of a cause of action for product defect against the lift manufacturer‚ since the lift components in question were no longer “substantially the same” as they were when they left the manufacturer’s possession. Moreover‚ it would have been difficult to establish that the existence of a defect in the lift was a substantial factor in causing the accident since the use of the manufacturer’s chain connector would have prevented the plaintiff’s injuries.
As such‚ the plaintiffs accepted a settlement offer from the manufacturer in the early phase of the case and thereafter proceeded against INC. The plaintiffs’ counsel argued that INC‚ as the owner of the lift‚ had nearly eight years after the 1990 accident to replace the chain connector. Instead‚ INC mechanics developed alternative methods of performing the adjustment of the counterweight‚ which did not involve the use of the connector. The product manual called for the removal of one of two retaining bolts on the sprocket frame during the procedure. A “note” followed which stated that a second bolt should be left in. Lowering the chain from the ground after both were removed could cause the chain and weight to fall unexpectedly. An engineer for the chairlift manufacturer‚ however‚ testified that there were in fact several circumstances when a mechanic performing the procedure would have to remove the bottom bolt during the procedure (e.g.‚ when the chain would be pulled downward over the bolt). Anderson testified that he could not recall specifically why the bolt was removed‚ but he concluded later that the D-8 bulldozer would be pulling the chain at a downward angle over the bolt. When a fellow mechanic removed the bolt‚ Anderson was holding the chain up off of the bolt. Using a full-scale model of the sprocket assembly and chain‚ the plaintiffs’ expert testified that the removable bolt was only a fraction of an inch from the chain and that the chain would be pulled downward so as to contact the bolt during the procedure. He further testified‚ consistent with the lift’s engineer‚ that it was reasonable to remove the bolt to prevent damage to the chain.
The defendant, INC, contended it had transmitted the product manual to Anderson’s employer‚ which discussed the adjustment of the counterweight. Specifically‚ the Yan Product Manual (authored by the manufacturer‚ Lift Engineering) gave clear instructions that operators should “[l]eave bottom safety bolt in at all times.” Anderson’s expert testified that it was unlikely that the counterweight would fall if the bottom safety bolt had remained in place. INC countered that (i) Anderson knew the instructions called for the use of the “chain connector‚” and therefore‚ bore ultimate responsibility for choosing the tools necessary to do the job (ii) Anderson could have acquired the chain connector within a matter of days and asserted that the absence of the chain connector was Anderson’s choice and the legal cause of the accident (iii) Anderson’s failure to follow the instructions was‚ if not the sole cause‚ the predominant cause of the accident (iv) INC’s only duty was as the commercial lessor of the premises and thus‚ could not be found liable since the Andersons had admitted the chairlift was not defective (v) if the jury found the chairlift was defectively designed‚ or had inadequate warnings and instructions‚ then responsibility fell solely on the manufacturer‚ who had settled prior to trial, and (vi) Anderson’s employer‚ and not INC as a landlord‚ had the duty to provide a safe workplace and provide necessary tools such as the chain connector since nothing in the Forest Service permit caused INC to absorb the duties of the manufacturer or the employer.
Anderson sustained bilateral above-the-knee amputations. He was hospitalized at Loma Linda University Medical Center where he received surgeries‚ prosthetics and rehabilitation. Through intense therapy‚ Anderson was able to learn to walk again using artificial legs. The plaintiffs’ life-care planning expert testified that for the rest of his life‚ Anderson would require the services of a nurse’s aide to perform his daily activities. Anderson would require regular replacement of his prosthetics‚ along with other medical and nursing care at a cost of between $165‚000 and $178‚000 per year for life (increasing in 2008). The present value of Anderson’s future care costs‚ as well as his past and future wage loss, was calculated by the plaintiff’s expert economist as approximately $5 million. Anderson also claimed past medical specials of $344‚000 (stipulated to by defense). Anderson’s wife claimed loss of consortium and reimbursement for her services rendered caring for her husband.
The defense contended that (i) the life care plan was overstated (ii) Anderson did not presently need full-time nursing care‚ but would only develop such a need as he grows older (iii) Anderson’s current‚ extensive use of prosthetics will decline as he grows older. The defense suggested to the jury that Anderson’s total economic damages were $4.05 million.
Approximately two years before trial‚ the Andersons settled with Lift Engineering & Manufacturing for their policy limit of $1 million‚ less defense counsel’s fees and costs‚ which reduced the settlement to $912‚000. From that‚ the Andersons reimbursed the workers’ compensation carrier $100‚000.
After trial‚ the jury found in favor of the Andersons finding INC 100% liable. The Andersons were awarded $30‚856‚317.