RED LODGE- On the cusp of a new ski season in Red Lodge, the ski area is facing litigation for the first time surrounding concerns over safety of its equipment.
The suit surrounds allegations of negligence. Two men, one from Montana and the other from Colorado, claim on Dec. 5, 2020, they mounted a chair on the Willow Creek lift, but as they were loading, the chair detached from the haul rope, and both hit the hard, snow-packed ground.
Their Billings attorney, Tanis Holm, says her clients were injured in the fall.
“One suffered a separated shoulder and the other a concussion,” said Holm. “We don’t know exactly what happened, but we know that a chair shouldn’t just spontaneously fall off a towrope.”
Along with that, the plaintiffs claimed Red Lodge Ski Mountain Ski Resort "failed to exercise ordinary care in maintaining its premises in a reasonably safe condition."
But Red Lodge has its own thoughts about the civil case and its track record on safety, saying one of the rider’s snowboard edges caught while loading the Willow Creek chairlift, causing the chair to twist and detach from the haul rope.
Red Lodge also says the plaintiffs, Benjamin Sun and Tate Getchell, were still on the ground when the chair detached, and Getchell repeatedly told ski patrol he was not injured.
The ski area said in a statement in part: “After the incident, Red Lodge Mountain tested all parts of the chair, reinstalled it, and it has been safely used by hundreds of thousands of passengers.”
But in light of the lawsuit, Red Lodge Mountain says it has nothing to hide, giving MTN News a tour of their facilities and a look at the safety regulations they follow.
“Every single wheel gets listened to and checked for play in the bearings,” says General Manager Jeff Schmidt.
While Schmidt declined to comment on the case specifically, he says every year the machines are checked and documented, which is required by federal law maintain the ski area's insurance.
Red Lodge also says when the plaintiffs purchased their lift tickets, they implicitly agreed to abide by a Montana law stating they must ski to their ability and use the chairlift properly and safely.
Red Lodge is a member of the National Ski Areas Association, a conduit for training and best practices.
“Safety is ingrained in everything we do,” said Adriene Saia Isaac, with the National Ski Areas Association. “At the end of the day, we want you to be able to go home and talk about your ski day with your family.”
The Willow Creek is one of Red Lodge’s oldest chairs. The riblet-style lift opened to the public in 1959, according to Schmidt.
The riblet is the same style of chair that ejected a Missoula 4-year-old off a chairlift in March at Montana Snowbowl near Missoula, and some experts say riblets tend to swing after a misload.
No one was seriously injured but the U.S. Forest Service is preventing Snowbowl from opening for the season, until they fix the problem.
The riblet is no longer manufactured.
“What I can say about the riblet lift is there are about 100 of them left in the U.S. And a lift is kind of like a car, so even though it’s not being manufactured anymore you are still replacing parts and the body of it, but you replace the stuff, the mechanical workings of it,” said Saia Isaac.
The plaintiffs say it’s not the first time a chair has detached from the Willow Creek lift. In 2011, court documents say the wind blew a chair against a tower, detaching it from the haul rope. In that case, Red Lodge closed the chairlift for two days to investigate.
However, in this case, prosecutors say Red Lodge got the lift going after the chair detached in 10 minutes.
It’s another reason why Holm believes her clients have a case.
“That’s our ultimate goal here,” she said. “We improve safety in chairlifts In Montana.”
While Red Lodge disagrees with the legal claims of the case, Schmidt says safety is the top priority of the resort.
“You want to go somewhere where you and your family can be expected to have a good time,” he said.
On the heels of a record year of visits for Red Lodge, both sides say the dialogue about safety is more important than ever.
“They’re coming here to have fun,” said Schmidt. “And we have to remember that and do our best to make sure that happens.”