Heavenly settles wrongful death suit | RecordCourier.com

Heavenly settles wrongful death suit

by Tom Lotshaw

Heavenly Mountain Resort has settled a wrongful death lawsuit over a man killed when a worn-out, 6,200-foot rope for its “Heavenly Flyer” ride broke and got entangled in a nearby chairlift he and his wife were on.

The zip ride at the South Shore ski resort has remained closed since the August 2009 incident.

Sacramento attorney Jason Sigel represented Mark Dickson’s wife and sons in the lawsuit. He said Dickson’s death was “a great and unfortunately needless tragedy had Heavenly maintained the ride and followed designers’ instructions on how to use it.”

Financial terms of the settlement are being kept private. The deal was struck in mid-September and ends more than three years of litigation.

“I can’t tell you how much Heavenly paid to make this go away,” Sigel said.

Sigel and other attorneys representing the family identified $15 million as a fair settlement value in documents filed in El Dorado Superior Court in June.

“The Dickson family all felt the monetary aspect was secondary, something that won’t bring Mark back,” Sigel said. “They were much more concerned with being able to hold Heavenly accountable, and are pleased with having been able to do that.”

The lawsuit alleged a combination of safety failures including insufficient training and staffing, improper ride operation, inattentiveness and poor oversight led to Dickson’s death.

As part of the settlement, Heavenly has admitted some mistakes and agreed to fix them before reopening the ride, Sigel said.

The Dickson family had asked for punitive damages against the Vail-owned ski resort. Judge Steven C. Bailey refused to throw out that request when the company’s attorneys asked him to do so in July.

“A reasonable jury could infer a conscious disregard for the plaintiffs’ safety based upon Heavenly’s conduct,” Bailey wrote in his decision.

At the time of the incident, Dickson and his wife, Rebecca, were celebrating their honeymoon in South Lake Tahoe, riding down the Tamarack chairlift after a day of hiking on the mountain.

The chairlift had been left running unattended by an employee who went to investigate the broken equipment retrieval rope for the nearby Heavenly Flyer, an action not in line with company training and “one in a litany of safety failures that led to Mark’s death,” Sigel said.

The 6,200-foot rope got picked up by strong winds and entangled in the running chairlift, causing its chairs to swing wildly and Dickson to fall about 40 feet to his death. His wife did not fall but was then stuck on the lift for more than an hour as employees untangled the rope, according to Sigel.

The lawsuit alleged Heavenly was operating the Heavenly Flyer ride in strong winds exceeding a 30-mile-per-hour limit set by the manufacturer and did not regularly inspect the rope’s condition and tension as instructed by the manufacturer, failures resulting in the rope’s “extremely worn” condition the day it broke, Sigel said.

The lawsuit also targeted regular marijuana use among Heavenly employees, noting supervisors were aware of on-the-job drug use and never did any post-incident drug testing after the fatal accident.

As part of the settlement agreement, Heavenly has agreed to change training, staffing, operating and drug-testing procedures related to the Heavenly Flyer before the ride is reopened, Sigel said.

Pete Sonntag, vice president and chief operating officer for Heavenly Mountain Resort, said in a formal statement: “We are pleased we were able to settle this litigation three months ago and hope that the resolution brought the family some closure. For the past three years, we have been working on a redesign of the zip line and the procedures for operating it to ensure the safest possible experience for our guests.”