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Ski safety: know the risks and what to do if you have an accident on the piste

It is estimated that there are almost 300 million skiers & snowboarders in the world today – snow sports is a very popular hobby, especially during the winter break.

According to Dr Mike Langran, a Scottish ski doctor, the average risk for any ski injury is 2-4 people out of 1000 on the piste, on any given day. Fatalities, whilst they attract media attention, are thankfully very rare and 90% of all fatalities occur as a result of a collision, with trees being the most commonly struck object.

Snow sport injuries are usually avoidable and to ensure that you have an enjoyable ski holiday, it is important to follow key safety tips along with the International Ski Federation’s Rules of Conduct:

The Rules of Conduct

  1. Respect your fellow skiers and snowboarders
  2. Speed and manner must be adapted to the prevailing conditions of terrain, snow and weather, as well as traffic on the piste
  3. If travelling from behind, choose your route in such a way not to endanger others
  4. When overtaking, leave enough room so that you can anticipate any unexpected manoeuvres from the skier in front
  5. Look in all directions before entering the slope to avoid a collision
  6. Do not stop in narrow places or where visibility is restricted – unless necessary
  7. When climbing or descending on foot, keep to the side at all times
  8. Respect all signs and markings
  9. In the case of an accident, all skiers/snowboarders are duty bound to assist
  10. Following any accident, all skiers/snowboarders who were either involved or witnessed the incident, must exchange details.

Additional Safety Tips

  1. Whilst not mandatory, many skiers now choose to wear helmets and it is, in fact, mandatory for children to wear helmets in some jurisdictions
  2. If you are an inexperienced skier, it is worthwhile seeking professional lessons
  3. Wear warm clothing and layers – ensure you have high quality goggles
  4. Have your equipment checked regularly
  5. Never borrow a friend’s equipment as this increases your risk of injury
  6. Always warm up and down prior to and following a skiing session
  7. Avoid pistes that are beyond your capability
  8. Be aware of the danger of “tree wells” and the risk of suffocation if you fall into one

If skiing off piste, remember that you are now in an uncontrolled zone. Be aware of avalanche risks and always check the current forecast before setting off.

What to do if you are involved in a Ski accident

  • Secure the accident area
  • Alert rescue services
  • Administer first aid, if you can
  • Take a note of contact details for those involved as well as witnesses
  • Take a note of the location of the accident including any markings or signs
  • Note down what the current conditions were in terms of snow & visibility
  • If accident has occurred as result of defective equipment or sign/structure take a photograph
  • Report the accident to the police

Foreign jurisdictions claim limitation periods

At Harper Macleod, we have experience in pursuing cases in foreign resorts and countries where the law is not only different but the timescales in pursuing cases also differs vastly to the United Kingdom.

Here are some of the major ski destinations in the world along with their claim limitation periods:

  • Austria – 3 years
  • Canada – 2 years *can differ per province
  • Colorado USA – 2 years
  • France – 10 years
  • Italy – 2 years
  • Scotland – 3 years
  • Switzerland – 1 year

Get in touch

If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, please get in touch.

Anderson v Lyotier t/a “Showbizz”

Anderson was a relatively experienced skier. During a skiing holiday, he purchased some skiing lessons. During the lesson and whilst skiing off piste, he collided with a tree sustaining a tetraplegic injury.

Earlier in the week, and during another lesson, the class had gone off-piste with the instructor and Anderson had found that difficult. It was recognised that Anderson was one of the weaker of the group in terms of experience and ability. The off-piste skiing on the day of injury was more difficult than the previous lessons.

It was held by the Court that the instructor should have taken account of the needs of Anderson given that he was one of the weakest members of the group. The instructor should have recognised that the slope was outwith his capabilities. However, the Court also held that given Anderson was an adult, he should have voiced his concerns.

The Court held that the ski instructor was primarily responsible for the accident but that Anderson was contributory negligent for failing to inform the instructor of his concerns. His damages were thus reduced by 30%.

Kearne v Ultima Tours

Kearne was a 15 year old pupil who was on a school skiing holiday in Austria. The package holiday also included skiing lessons as well as flights and accommodation. Kearne was a beginner and put in a novice ski class. The instructor advised the class to descend a blue run which was steeper than any others she had skied before. She had only done 6-7 hours of skiing previously and was regarded as one of the weakest in her group who was not always in control of her skis.

Whilst descending the run, Kearne lost control of her speed and direction and was unable to stop. She descended into the ski centre’s car park and collided with a parked car.

A number of issues were addressed at trial:

Did the instructor make an accurate and reliable assessment of the Kearne’s ability?
Did Kearne contribute to her injuries through her own negligence?
Was the slope appropriate given Kearne’s capabilities?

Ultima Tours conceded that it was responsible for the proper performance of its obligations under the Package Holiday Regulations.

The expected standard of care was determined by the International Ski Federation rules which state

“Ski schools, instructors and guides must never allow their pupils to take any risk beyond their capability especially taking into account the snow and weather conditions.”

The Court held that the instructor failed to provide the necessary supervision and tuition to comply with the relevant guidance. Further, Kearne had not demonstrated the required level of performance and capability for the instructor to make a reasonable decision to move the class to the blue slope. The tour operator was therefore found to be liable for the accident.

It is important to note that the actions of skiers will be assessed according to the practice and law of the country in which the accident occurs.

Bundesgericht (unreported)

An 11 year old girl was skiing, in Switzerland, with her parents on a slope that was classed as “medium” difficulty but that she knew well. She was wearing skiing glasses but not a helmet. On a slight bend, the girl failed to follow the bend and instead skied straight ahead, off the slope and into fresh snow where she hit a slope marking post made of iron.

As a result of the accident, the girl sustained significant injuries including almost total loss of eyesight, loss of smell and tasting abilities.

The girl sued the operator of the ski slope alleging that they had breached their legal duty to implement safety precautions.

The case was argued over many years before several courts right up to the Swiss Federal Supreme Court (FSC).

The FSC held and stated the following:

• Ski operators must protect slope users from atypical risks which are not easily recognisable and which prove to be traps.

• Operators are obliged to protect slope users from risks which cannot be avoided.

• Operators are requested only to implement precautionary measures which are reasonable, usual, necessary and practicable.

• The slope user also has a responsibility for their own safety, to a certain extent.

The FSC noted that the accident took place around 1-2 metres away from the edge of the slope in fresh snow but, nonetheless, this was an area which was still covered by the operator’s duty. Given that, the operator was duty bound to ensure that any natural or artificial obstacles were either removed, padded or signalled with hazard signs.

The operator argued that it was not reasonable to expect them to pad a marking post and that no other posts, such as plastic posts, would be suitable as they were not stable given the conditions.

The FSC confirmed that there were plastic posts that were suitable for weather exposed locations and that indeed some such posts existed on glaciers. It held that the accident happened on a risky section of the slope and that a collision with an iron post bears a risk of serious injury.

The Court held that it was reasonable to expect the operator to install less dangerous plastic marking posts instead of the iron posts, despite the fact that it would cost the operator more in fees and labour. As a result, it was concluded that the operator had breached its duty of care and the girl was entitled to an award of compensation.

However, the FSC also concluded that the girl had not adapted her way of skiing to her abilities and the current weather and slope conditions. She had to take some responsibility for the accident. Given that, any award of compensation should be reduced. The FSC sent the case to another Court (that had previously heard the case) to determine the rate by which the full award of CHF 140,000 should be reduced accordingly. The final reduction has not been disclosed.

Get in touch

If you would like to discuss any of the issues raised in this article, please get in touch.


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Call us for free on 0330 159 5555 or complete our online form below to submit your enquiry or arrange a call back.