How a “cat walk” crash turned into a contentious call for health coverage
In the short story “There’s a Wreck at the Top of Mount Mammon,” a fictional ski patroller wrestles with a nightmare about a fatal accident on a run called Heaven.
Throughout John Rember’s story collection “Cheerleaders from Gomorrah: Tales from the Lycra Archipelago,” the Idaho author takes aim at the unique forces of human nature found in ski towns. One of those is a ski patroller’s relationship to injury and death. The stakes are high. Sometimes the stress causes bad dreams, which grow worse when ski patrollers become ensnared in tricky lawsuits.
That’s why, in 1988, it seemed pro skier Scot Schmidt was sticking up for our friends in red and black when he told the world: “I don’t like the way things are going in the states with ski resorts all regulated by lawyers and insurance companies… People suing ski areas should be shot.”
This quote appears in the Greg Stump film “The Blizzard of Aaahs,” and was also a shoutout to skiers and riders who wanted increased access to off-limits terrain.
It’s up to ski patrol to draw the line between what is and is not in play for those on the slopes. At the same time, laws in different ski states recognize it’s impossible to measure off perfect servings of “safe” and eliminate all risk.
When injuries happen, ski patrol responds, then the patrollers involved wait to see if the insurance companies and law firms get involved.
That’s what happened for patrollers on scene in December 2015 when Bozeman attorney and failed congressional candidate John Meyer skied into an area under the Challenger Chairlift at Big Sky Resort.
Meyer then “skied over a steep slope and hit a blind and unmarked ‘cat walk’ where he was ejected from his skis,” note the resort’s attorneys in a motion to dismiss a lawsuit brought in December by Meyer.
It’s not unusual for people to sue ski areas and other businesses providing access to outdoor, adventure sports. What is odd, say attorneys and healthcare experts, is Meyer’s stated goal of using a lawsuit settlement to grant health insurance to ski patrollers and other seasonal employees at Big Sky Resort.
In his complaint, Meyer seeks $50 million in damages. With this reward, the complaint details Meyer’s intention to give it all to the ski patrol that helped save his life and other employees without healthcare coverage at Big Sky.
“One hundred percent of any court award or settlement in this case will be used to set up a trust and purchase health insurance for seasonal employees and provide a pay raise to the ski patrol at Big Sky Resort,” continues Meyer’s complaint.
The attorney’s high-impact crash on the “cat walk” sent him into an induced coma for “2-4 days,” according to court documents.
“He (Meyer) initially blamed his injuries on his Dynafit bindings,” continues the growing court record on this case.
Now, Meyer backs his call for a $50 million settlement by claiming Big Sky Resort was negligent for “failure to supply the ski patrol with adequate signs and fences to mark hazards.”
The resort pushes back, noting some clear language in Montana law: “A skier must accept all responsibility for injury that results from the ‘inherent dangers and risks of skiing.’”
These include: “Variations in steepness or terrain, whether natural or the result of slope design… including but not limited to…catwalks.”
Big Sky’s attorneys at Bozeman’s Crowley Fleck go on to argue Meyer filed his lawsuit “for improper purposes, namely, to coerce Big Sky to do a collateral thing it could not otherwise be compelled to do, and to further Meyer’s campaign for political office.”
Meyer received around 3 percent of the vote in the recent Democratic congressional primary won by Kathleen Williams.
Evan Banker, a Colorado attorney who is part of the skilaw.com team in Denver, said he’s never seen a personal injury suit play out like the Meyer case.
“I haven’t seen this sort of posture,” said Banker, noting the McDonald’s hot coffee case where a customer was burned and then awarded a $2.86 million settlement. This amount was later reduced and the case became politicized with calls for tort reform.
By asking for $50 million in damages, Meyer’s claim far surpasses what was financially at stake in the infamous McDonald’s scalded lap suit.
With his action against Big Sky, it looks like Meyer is trying to throw a bank shot into the personal injury lawsuit process. He’s asking for any large settlement to bounce back into the political-policy-human services arena and not be used to make Meyer rich.
The resort and at least one other source mentioned in court documents are skeptical of Meyer’s pledged altruism.
Resort attorneys accuse Meyer of turning his ski injuries into a “tool of coercion.” This approach is “unusual,” said Banker and other industry watchers.
Since Colorado’s landmark Ski Safety Act of 1979, state laws in ski country have adopted a “delineation of an inherent danger or risk of skiing.”
It’s increasingly difficult to prevail in personal injury suits against resorts, said Banker. But there remain legitimate ways to advance the “appropriate aims of tort laws” when plaintiffs see the need to sue in order to improve safety.
“They say, ‘I don’t care about the money. I want it to be safe so this doesn’t happen to someone else,’” said Banker, pointing to a 2014 case where the mother of a 19-year-old skier successfully sued Howelsen Hill. The suit compelled the little ski area in Steamboat Springs to better mark access to the dangerous terrain where her son died.
When contacted by the Lookout, Meyer was out of town and busy preparing for his wedding Sept. 8. He provided copies of the latest court filings, which include a behind-the-scenes storyline about Meyer’s private tea and conversations with Taylor Middleton. The Big Sky resort general manager rebuffed Meyer’s demands.
Meyer allegedly went on to threaten Big Sky with renting a billboard along Highway 191 reading, “Heated chair lifts, but no healthcare for seasonal employees? That’s B.S.!”
Seasonal employees all over Montana lack healthcare coverage, said Stacey Anderson with the Montana Primary Care Association. Many of these workers qualify for Medicaid—thanks to Medicaid expansion in Montana—because they make so little.
As for Meyer’s litigious approach to expanding access to healthcare coverage, Anderson hasn’t seen this tactic play out before. But she’s not surprised to see the issue making headlines.
“There’s a lot of political tension around healthcare coverage,” said Anderson, given the looming possibility the Montana Legislature will not extend Medicaid expansion when it reconvenes in January. For seasonal employees in Gallatin and Madison County, this gives added weight to the upcoming races for seats in the Montana Legislature.
“If we do not extend the Medicaid expansion, then the option for some seasonal employees to have coverage will be lost,” said Anderson.
Will vanishing healthcare coverage for local workers become another example of how we live with imperfect safety nets in ski country, land of inherent risk?
John Rember’s 1993 story “There’s a Wreck at the Top of Mount Mammon” does not have an answer, but it gets at something present in Big Sky today. This story and others weave between usual suspects found in mountain towns—the endorphin addict, the Peter Pan fun hog, the weary girlfriend and the ski patroller who is skilled, dedicated and haunted. His bad dreams include a scene where the rescue sled flies down the mountain and crashes “through lift lines full of vacationing attorneys.”
In another moment, the ski patroller’s nightmare follows the woman who dies on Heaven as she gets carried downhill in a runaway sled.
The patroller “tries to change the ending of the dream,” writes Rember. “But still she hits the tower.”
More on the legal tussle between Big Sky and John Meyer in the Sept. 6 edition of Lone Peak Lookout and at lonepeaklookout.com.