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Mark Bello
Mark Bello
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Recent Ski Resort Accident Raises Safety Concerns of Aging Lifts

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On Saturday, seven skiers were injured at Sugarloaf Mountain Resort when a chair lift stopped, then headed down the mountain backward. A preliminary investigation found that a gearbox on the lift malfunctioned and effectively disabled two brake systems; a third back-up brake also didn’t deploy properly. A lift attendant pulled an emergency brake to bring it to a halt after chairs slid about 450 feet. More than 200 skiers were evacuated. Injuries were described as not being life-threatening.

According to a Sugarloaf spokesperson, the lift had passed its annual state inspection and a dynamic load test last year, a requirement every seven years. The gearbox that failed, effectively blocking two of the three brake systems from deploying, had just received preventative maintenance the day before. The incident involved a 27-year-old quad chairlift.

This was the second chairlift malfunction in five years at Sugarloaf. In 2010 eight skiers were injured when high wind caused a derailment, and five chairs toppled 30 feet to the ground. As the investigation continues, a Sugarloaf spokesman said it probably will involve extensive analysis and it is too soon to say what, if any, changes to operational protocols will be made. While ski industry standards call for lift operators to be trained and documented annually, there is no standards that address how often lifts should be replaced.

Injuries and deaths from ski lift malfunctions are rare, according to the industry. The National Ski Areas Association, which represents ski area owners and operators, says you are more likely to die riding an elevator than a ski lift. Between 1973 and 2012 there were 13 deaths and 62 injuries from lift malfunctions and falls in the U.S. Still, the accident raises questions about the safety of aging infrastructure at New England’s ski resorts. Some believe given the large number of skiers annually using these lifts, it is not surprising that after significant and repetitive cycles, design defects may catch up with the technology. Experts, however, say that older lifts aren’t necessarily unsafe if they’re properly maintained.

Whether the accident will have negative fallout for the state’s ski industry as it begins to wind down for the season is unclear, but despite safety concerns this recent incident has not shaken the confidence of some avid skiers. At least one skier on the lift at the time of the accident was back on the slopes the next day. Meanwhile, the U.S. Ski and Snowboarding Association said the accident has no impact on the U.S. National Ski Championships at Sugarloaf beginning this week, with top skiers Lindsey Venn and Mikaela Schifrin.

Mark Bello is the CEO and General Counsel of Lawsuit Financial Corporation, a pro-justice lawsuit funding company.