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Colorado judge rules ski resort not immune from lawsuit in avalanche death

By Keith Coffman

DENVER (Reuters) - A Colorado judge has ruled that a ski resort operator is not immune from a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents of a 13-year-old boy who was killed in an avalanche on Vail Mountain in 2012.

Broomfield District Court Judge Chris Melonakis denied a motion for summary judgment filed by Vail Resorts, which argued that Colorado's Ski Safety Act granted it legal immunity because of the "inherent dangers" associated with skiing and snowboarding.

The parents of Taft Conlin sued Vail, saying the resort violated the safety act when it closed the upper gate to an area known as Prima Cornice because of high avalanche danger, but not the lower section.

The teenager hiked up a trail to ski and was killed when an avalanche swept down the mountainside.

The lawsuit alleges that Vail knew for years that skiers would use the lower entrance to access the mountain, and as such should have closed both entrances to the trail.

The judge ruled the case could proceed and that it would be up to a jury to decide if Vail was liable.

"Whether the ski patrol was aware that skiers hiked from the Lower Prima Cornice gate to the Upper Prima Cornice trail is a disputed issue of fact," Melonakis wrote in his decision.

Robert Blume, an attorney defending Vail Resorts, said the company was committed to safety for visitors and while it was "terribly saddened" over the tragedy, the case had no legal merit.

"This is a case involving an inherent danger of skiing and the tragic decision to take inappropriate risks and hike far into closed terrain," Blume said in a statement. "We are confident a jury will agree."

The family's lawyer, Jim Heckbert, said his clients were pleased with the judge's decision.

"The parents just want a jury to hear how their son died, and what Vail failed to do," he said.

A trial date has not been set.

(Reporting by Keith Coffman; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Peter Cooney)

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