Sunday River not responsible for chairlift injury, jury finds

Posted Nov. 01, 2011, at 6:53 a.m.

PARIS, Maine — An Oxford County Superior Court jury Monday found Sunday River ski resort not responsible for injuries to a skier who fell off a chairlift on a windy day in 2007.

Steven C. Sutton and his wife, Paula Sutton, both of Bethel, filed a civil lawsuit against the resort, claiming Sunday River was negligent in allowing the chairlift to run in high winds. On Dec. 12, 2007, Steven Sutton, now 59, was riding the Barker Mountain quad chairlift when he fell near the unloading ramp.

The 12-foot fall resulted in nerve damage for Sutton, who lost some use of his right arm and has cost him nearly $57,000 in medical expenses. He was seeking compensation for past and future medical expenses, as well as for lost earnings and pain and suffering. His wife sought compensation for loss of consortium.

Attorneys for the resort said Sunday River followed American National Standards Institute guidelines, and said Sutton’s injuries stemmed from an unfortunate accident.

“There is nothing unusual about wind at the top of a mountain,” attorney Neal Pratt said in his closing remarks Monday. Pratt said the resort had safety regulations in place to determine what conditions were grounds for shutting down a chairlift.

“We’re very pleased,” Pratt said after the verdict. “It was obviously a very difficult case.”

Anthony Ferguson, attorney for the Suttons, had no comment after the verdict.

Ferguson contended that high winds caused the chair to swing side to side. He referred to the testimony of accident reconstruction expert Seth Bayer, who said the chair was swinging at a 15- to 17-degree angle when it reached the unload area, where a mechanism automatically righted the chair. He said the chair’s righting was so fast and violent it threw Sutton from his chair.

“Sunday River doesn’t really care about safety,” Ferguson said in his closing remarks. “All they care about is keeping that lift open.” He referred to two other incidents where skiers fell off the Barker Mountain chairlift as evidence.

Pratt said those incidents were also accidents. He said wind speeds alone don’t constitute dangerous conditions, and referred to the testimony of expert witness Jon Mauch, lift director at Keystone and Breckenridge resorts and a member of the Colorado Passenger Tramway Safety Board. Pratt said Mauch was a more qualified witness than Bayer.

According to Pratt, Sutton fell far from the spot where the chairlift is righted. Referring to testimony of someone riding in the chair behind Sutton, Pratt said Sutton had been turned sideways in his chair to speak to another lift rider. Because Sutton has a hearing impairment, he said, Sutton has to read lips.

He said Sutton fell at in the area where the detachable chairlift slows down, and the slowing motion paired with the way he was seated may have caused Sutton to slip.

“Mister Sutton was not sitting securely in his chair and he lost his balance,” Pratt said.

Ferguson asked the jury for more than $2,057,000 for Steven Sutton, and $265,000 for his wife.

He said Sutton had paid nearly $57,000 in medical expenses, and that prescription medications and doctor’s visits for his permanent injury would cost another $210,183, assuming Sutton lived as long as the average white male. Ferguson also asked for $192,263 for lost earnings, $540,000 for his permanent impairment, $250,000 for past pain and suffering and $1 million for future pain and suffering.

“Steve is entitled to all of his future expenses,” Ferguson said.

The jury of five men and four women decided unanimously that Sunday River was not responsible.

(c)2011 the Sun Journal (Lewiston, Maine)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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