Bizarre courtroom scene
Federal judge F-bombed by attorney—and former congressional candidate—suing Big Sky Resort
The Mike Mansfield Federal Courthouse in Butte is a stately monument to Sen. Mansfield’s distinguished career. The courtroom on the second floor has high ceilings with ornate features and emerald curtains tied with a gold rope.
On Wednesday, Oct. 10, Judge Brian Morris and a clutch of court staff welcomed three attorneys from Bozeman. Ian McIntosh and Mac Morris arrived first, speaking politely in hushed tones as they prepared to represent the interests of their client, Big Sky Resort. John Meyer walked in last. He and McIntosh shook hands awkwardly before all rose as Judge Morris entered the courtroom.
Meyer is suing Big Sky Resort for $50 million because he suffered serious injuries while skiing under the Challenger Lift in 2015. He believes the crash occurred because ski patrol did not adequately mark the area with bamboo safety poles and warning signs. When patrollers arrived on scene, according to his complaint, Meyer “was unconscious and his left ear was discharging cerebral spinal fluid.”
Meyer was transported by helicopter to the Billings Clinic, where he spent “2-4 days in an induced coma… Meyer broke several ribs, his arm and scapula. Plates were installed in his arm and scapula.” (The scapula is also known as the shoulder blade or wing bone.)
In Meyer’s complaint, he claims he will use any settlement money from his lawsuit to provide health insurance coverage to ski patrollers and other seasonal employees at the resort.
Big Sky’s attorneys argued that suing for health insurance coverage is an illegitimate use of the legal process. They also stated the resort never marks the zone where Meyer crashed, and that state law protects ski areas from liability claims filed by injured skiers.
Judge Morris agreed with this point, stating, “There are laws designed to protect winter sports providers.”
Given all this, the resort’s counsel asked Judge Morris to dismiss Meyer’s case because it represents an abuse of process—and for reasons debated at length—they allege Meyer admits to abusing the system.
The resort’s attorneys allege Meyer intentionally shamed Big Sky with social media postings about investing in new chairlifts instead of employee benefits. They say he also threatened to put up a billboard on Highway 191 with a similar message.
In its counterclaim, Big Sky Resort accuses Meyer of filing his lawsuit “with an ulterior motive… attempting to use this lawsuit to leverage or coerce Big Sky… to provide additional benefits and compensation to its employees, which is a purpose for which the legal process was not designed.”
The counterclaim goes on to insist, “Meyer’s actions constitute abuse of process… As a result of Meyer’s abuse of process, Big Sky has incurred damages including costs, attorneys’ fees, and other damages.”
Judge Morris listened as Big Sky’s attorneys pointed out ways they believe court precedent supports a dismissal of Meyer’s lawsuit against the resort. Because he never refuted the resort’s allegations in his response to Big Sky’s counterclaim, attorney Mac Morris told Judge Morris, “Allegations that are not denied are admitted… He didn’t respond to those, so he admitted them.”
Judge Morris quizzed Big Sky’s attorneys about Meyer’s stated motive of providing health insurance to seasonal employees.
“So what?,” asked Judge Morris. “What’s the harm there? Why shouldn’t he be able to put up billboards saying the resort should provide health insurance? What’s the political gain in this?”
Judge Morris went on to say Meyer has every right, “To go on social media and call you (Big Sky Resort) a tight wad.”
Morris, the resort’s attorney, responded with, “That doesn’t matter because he has admitted to claims for abuse of process.”
Meyer has also accused Big Sky’s attorneys of abuse of process, and the tangled knot of claims and counterclaims led Judge Morris to describe the case as “a circular firing squad,” a “rat hole” and “a classic case of too many lawyers involved.”
When it was Meyer’s turn to face questioning from the judge, the proceedings veered in a few interesting and sometimes bizarre directions.
First, Judge Morris asked Meyer why he didn’t simply file a straightforward lawsuit for the injuries he suffered during his 2015 crash on a “catwalk” in the Challenger area of Big Sky Resort.
“I try to be a reasonable person. I don’t like filing lawsuits. I just want to help people,” Meyer told the judge. “I don’t want to be perceived as some selfish jerk.”
Meyer is best known for successfully suing the Forest Service to block logging in critical wildlife habitat. He’s credited with the “Cottonwood decision,” named for Meyer’s Cottonwood Environmental Law Center. Some in the conservation community praise Meyer as a hero, while at the same time, he’s become a target of Montana’s two senators. Sen. Steve Daines and Sen. Jon Tester don’t agree on a lot, but they both oppose the Cottonwood decision.
Meyer began his recent testimony in Butte in such a hushed voice, Judge Morris asked him to speak up. Then the judge drilled down on the charges against Meyer, saying he’s accused of “attempting to pervert the legal process in two ways”—by trying to fund health benefits for seasonal employees and to advance his political ambitions.
To this, Meyer shot back, “It’s not true. This case took away from my political campaign. It didn’t add anything to it.” (Meyer received around 3 percent of the vote in the 2018 Democratic congressional primary won by Kathleen Williams.)
Meyer also accused Big Sky Resort of bullying and intimidating him through its attorneys. And that’s when Meyer changed his tone.
To prove his point, Meyer offered the example of opposing counsel trying to take Meyer’s deposition right before his wedding and marriage to former Explore Big Sky reporter Amanda Eggert.
“What the f%& is that?” blurted Meyer, causing Judge Morris to scold him.
“Calm down Mr. Meyer,” said Judge Morris. “There is decorum in this room.”
Meyer pulled it together and continued with his accusations against the resort.
As for the back and forth between Meyer and the resort’s attorneys, he said, “We can’t move forward because Big Sky won’t provide discovery.”
Specifically, Meyer has requested all materials related to any past complaints and lawsuits involving an alleged lack of signs, gates, fences, or other safety equipment used to mark ski terrain.
In Butte, Meyer told Judge Morris, “My claim is if it (the terrain) had been marked, I wouldn’t have gotten in the accident.”
McIntosh, Big Sky’s attorney, responded in court, calling Meyer’s discovery request, “wildly irrelevant.”
“It has nothing to do with this case. A lack of signs doesn’t have anything to do with it,” said McIntosh, explaining the resort doesn’t sign the area in question, so the number of signs available didn’t matter at the time of Meyer’s crash.
Big Sky’s attorneys argue it was Meyer who refused to respond to specific issues raised in the resort’s counterclaim, calling Meyer’s charges, “a petty discovery dispute founded on nonsensical arguments.”
When Judge Morris asked Meyer why he failed to respond to four charges in the resort’s counterclaim, he said, “I don’t remember your honor. I have a head injury.”
Upon hearing this, Judge Morris’ eyes widened in apparent disbelief as he informed Meyer his head injury doesn’t entitle him to any special treatment in court. The judge also reminded Meyer outside counsel is available to him.
“Rules are the rules,” said Judge Morris.
McIntosh seized on Meyer’s unconventional performance in court when he rose to present Big Sky’s case for dismissing Meyer’s lawsuit. He asked Judge Morris, “To put an end to the very behavior we’ve seen today.”
Referring to Meyer’s foul-mouthed “outburst,” McIntosh continued, “We simply ask the court to put a stop to it.”
McIntosh raised his voice slightly while making his points about Meyer allegedly extorting Big Sky for “political gain” and this triggered a mild warning from Judge Morris.
“Let’s tone it down,” said the judge, looking to move things along.
McIntosh complied and summed up his argument: “He (Meyer) admits his case is weak. He’s wasting the court’s time. He’s wasting Big Sky’s time… We are moving to dismiss his claim against Big Sky.”
Later, apparently referring to the possibility of (if the case doesn’t go his way) being on the hook for paying Big Sky’s attorneys’ fees, Meyer told the judge, “I have significant student loan debt.”
When asked to comment on the case, Meyer told the Lookout, “They (Big Sky’s attorneys) might sue me, so I can’t talk.”
Big Sky Resort offered no specific response to the recent court proceedings, saying only in a statement, “While we do not comment on open litigation, Big Sky Resort is committed to resolving this matter consistent with state of Montana law. We are pleased to let this matter play out in the court system.”
At the end of the two and a half hour hearing on Oct. 10, Judge Morris said, “I am going to take this matter under advisement.”
No ruling on the case was issued before press time.