The start of winter is upon us, so Ontarians are getting outside and taking advantage of the fresh snow. Some more adventurous will be hitting the Ontario backcountry (on skis, snowboards, or snowshoes) to enjoy the powder.
But what happens when a day in the backcountry results in injury?
Building on our previous post regarding ski and snowboard liability waivers, we’ll cover everything you need to know about liability in backcountry skiing accidents, along with some helpful tips for enjoying the backcountry safely. It’s critical to remember that backcountry skiing comes with inherent risks that should only be undertaken by experienced participants. And, if you have been involved in a backcountry skiing accident in Ontario, consult with an experienced personal injury lawyer to determine whether you have a case.
Refresher: Ski and Snowboard Liability Waivers
If you’re heading to a ski hill, you’ll likely sign a waiver before hitting the slopes. These waivers typically confirm that you will assume all risk of personal injury, death, or property loss resulting from any cause whatsoever, including negligence, breach of contract, breach of statutory duty of care, or breach of any other duty of case on the part of the ski area operator. In other words, you won’t be able to hold the ski hill responsible if you are injured on the slopes.
Ski Hill Liability Waivers and Backcountry Skiing in Ontario
How do ski hill liability waivers apply to backcountry skiing? For some skiers, ski hills offer a means of getting into the backcountry – which means some skiers might be tempted to leave the ski hill’s boundary line and venture off on their own. Typically, a ski and snowboard liability waiver will include an acknowledgment that the skier will stay within designated areas and comply with signage, meaning that the ski hill will likely not be held liable for any resulting injury in an out-of-bounds area.
Liability in Backcountry Skiing Accidents in Ontario
Leaving the boundary line on a ski hill isn’t the only way to get into the backcountry. Many backcountry skiers turn to heli-skiing services to get to the backcountry. Others strap on their skins and hike up on their own.
If you used a heli-skiing service or guide to get into the backcountry, you will almost certainly sign a waiver similar to the ones you’d find at a ski hill. This means, again, that the heli-skiing service will likely not be held liable for any resulting injury. However, as a novel case from the British Columbia Supreme Court points out, there is the possibility that a “ski buddy” could be held liable for negligence for injuries arising in the backcountry.
What Kennedy v. Coe Says About Backcountry Skiing Liability
One case from British Columbia, Kennedy v. Coe, 2014 BCSC 120, gives us an interesting glimpse into how the courts handle liability in backcountry skiing accidents.
In Kennedy, a man was tragically killed in a tree well while heli-skiing. The deceased had signed a waiver of liability with the heli-skiing company, and an action was not brought against them. Instead, the deceased’s wife brought an action against his assigned “ski buddy” during the heli-skiing trip.
The deceased’s wife claimed that the ski buddy – assigned to ski with the deceased during certain periods of the trip – owed the deceased a duty of care while participating in the guided backcountry skiing trip. Specifically, the deceased’s wife argued that the ski buddy had voluntarily undertaken a role as a ski buddy and therefore assumed responsibility for the deceased.
Conducting a thorough duty of care analysis, the court determined that the ski buddy did not create or control the risk of the deceased dying in a tree well. Responsibility for that risk, instead, rested with the heli-skiing guides. The deceased and his ski buddy did not share a special relationship, and any relationship that did exist was dictated by the heli-skiing guides. Furthermore, there was no evidence that the deceased had relied on his ski buddy to do anything more than ski with him, as instructed by the heli-skiing guides.
The court determined that the ski buddy did not owe a duty of care to the deceased. However, given the novel nature of the claim, the court went on to consider whether – if a duty of care had existed – the ski buddy had met the standard of care expected of him. The court found that, even if a duty of care had been owed, the ski buddy met this standard as he had alerted the heli-skiing guides that the deceased was missing.
Ultimately, the deceased wife’s claim was unsuccessful. However, as the circumstances of each case will involve different factors, Kennedy does not preclude the possibility of a similar claim being successful in the future in Ontario.
Tips for Backcountry Skiing Safety in Ontario
Backcountry skiing in Ontario is an inherently risky activity, and taking steps to minimize risk is essential. Consider the following before setting off on your trip:
- Ensure you have the appropriate skills for the terrain and area you plan to ski in
- Never hit the backcountry alone! Consider guided tours or, if you’re striking out on your own, bring a friend (or five)
- Get the information you need before you go, like emergency contact information (e.g., local Search and Rescue), and the weather conditions in your area
- Leave an itinerary with a friend or family member
- Carry the appropriate equipment, including shovels, survival kits, communication devices, and warm clothing
- Wear appropriate gear (including, but not limited to, a good helmet) to reduce your risk of injury
Depending on where you’re skiing, you may also need to consider avalanche risk – especially if you’re making a trip out west. Before committing to your first backcountry skiing excursion, take an Avalanche Skills Training Course. These courses will help familiarize you with avalanche terrain, understand how and when avalanches happen and develop appropriate backcountry and rescue skills.
You’ll also want to familiarize yourself with avalanche safety equipment, including beacons, airbags, and ava-lungs, and bring them along depending on where you plan to ski.
Skilled Personal Injury Lawyers Serving Eastern Ontario and North Bay
At Tierney Stauffer LLP, our skilled personal injury lawyers have the knowledge to handle a variety of personal injury claims, regardless of how the accident happened. Non-traditional accidents, such as backcountry skiing and snowboarding accidents, can involve special legal issues that require the attention of an experienced personal injury lawyer.
We have the skills and resources necessary to tackle these complicated issues so you can focus on your recovery. Call us at 1-888-799-8057 or contact us online to set up a free consultation with one of our experienced personal injury lawyers.