A Tree Suddenly Got in My Way. I'm Suing.

Meet the lawyer who keeps ski resorts open.
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Lawyer Jill Penwarden

During a recession, the number of lawsuits increases by a third. Desperation fuels a flurry of suing. The ski industry isn’t exempt. Jill Penwarden, a lawyer with the Truckee, California, firm Duane Morris, has represented ski resorts for the past eight years. We caught up with her to see how resorts are faring.

What’s a typical case for you?

Someone’s been injured skiing—they’ve hit a tree, slid off a rock, or been hurt in a terrain park—and they sue the resort. I represent the resort. If someone encounters a natural feature [like a rock, cliff, or tree], the resort will win those cases more often than not. But cases involving terrain parks and other manmade conditions are a little trickier.

But when you buy a lift ticket, isn’t there a liability release saying the resort isn’t responsible for your injuries?

A signed season-pass release is treated like a written contract in court. A release can’t stop you from initiating a lawsuit, but it provides a defense to the ski area. It’s an opportunity to warn the person of the risks involved in the sport.

There’s California state legislation in the works that, if passed, could make ski resorts issue “standardized safety padding for all infrastructures located in close proximity to ski runs.” What do you make of this?

I would be against padding rocks and trees. People are seeking a wilderness experience. This isn’t the log ride at Disneyland. It could be mitigated to the point where everything is padded. At that point, you’re in a bouncy castle, not skiing. Why not just pad skiers in sumo outfits?

If I want a lifetime pass to a ski area, can I sue for a fingernail in my soup?

Ski resorts don’t like to give out lifetime season passes. Chances are, you’re not going to get one.

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