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Is careening down the slope a crime?

Colorado judge, in dismissing suit against a speeding skier, raisesquestions of liability.

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"Ski at your own risk" is the essence of a warning posted at all ski resorts and printed on every lift ticket sold in Colorado.

Now, a court ruling in the heart of ski country is punctuating that message with an exclamation point. The finding - that a fast-traveling skier was not at fault in the death of a man he struck on the slopes - may soon have skiers and snowboarders of all abilities looking over their shoulders. As a result, everyone from lawyers to resort owners is reexamining whether out-of-control skiing should be considered a crime.

"There is no question death is possible, as was tragically illustrated in this case," Judge David Lass wrote in his opinion, throwing out charges of reckless manslaughter and negligent homicide against a skier who caused a fatal accident on Vail Mountain in 1997. But "the court does not find a substantial risk of death in the event of collision."

In essence, he ruled, it was just an accident.

The decision has surprised many here. "The judge got it wrong on this one. I think it's kind of frightening," says Jim Chalat, a Denver trial lawyer who specializes in ski litigation. "It means that the irresponsible skier might ski with impunity."

Countertrend?

Many believe the case will have broad impact. Prior to it, no court had dismissed charges against a skier accused of causing injury or death to another through recklessness. In fact, in recent years, there have been a number of successful prosecutions and plea agreements in similar cases. In other states, skiers responsible for collisions have been prosecuted on comparable charges.

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