Burton settles wrongful-death suit days before trial
A lawsuit with the power to change the snowboarding industry, ended with barely a whisper this week.
Burton Snowboards said it would fight the suit brought by Joel and Merle Pendel to the finish, but days before it was scheduled to go to trial, a tentative settlement was reached.
“My clients are happy,” Joseph Carcione Jr., a lawyer for the Pendels, said Tuesday. He refused to provide further information until the settlement is finalized.
The suit maintained that Burton was responsible for the death of the Pendel’s son, Issac Goodkind, who was killed snowboarding 7 years ago.
Goodkind died during the worst winter in 10 years.
On New Year’s Day 1993, a severe storm covered Lake Tahoe’s North Shore in nearly two feet of soft snow. A light snow was falling Jan. 2 when the 22-year-old from Santa Cruz hit a tree on Homewood Mountain Resort’s Hobbit Run – an advanced and partially wooded ski area.
Goodkind fell head first into a tree well – an area of loose snow at a tree’s base – and died of suffocation and hypothermia.
Only an inch of his snowboard was visible when Goodkind was found, suggesting he fell violently and was impacted deep within the snow. Unable to breath he would have felt an incredible pressure on his chest before quickly losing consciousness and dying.
It is possible, though, that the snow was loose and that Goodkind was trapped alive for some time. Scared – weighed down by the board strapped to his feet – and trying desperately to escape, he would have slowly lost consciousness due to the intense cold and lack of air.
Dying would have merely felt like falling asleep.
The Pendels maintained that their son would have been able to climb from the tree well if his board was equipped with releasable bindings. The suit claimed Burton was “negligent in manufacturing a snowboard with binding that did not release in a fall.”
Had the suit been tried, and the Pendels had won, it would have resulted in chaos in the snowboard industry. Almost every snowboard available is equipped with standard “bear trap” bindings, and only one company in the United States manufactures bindings that release.
“The industry is so scared about the repercussions that they won’t do anything to solve the problem,” said Matthew Miller, CEO of Miller Snowboards, which invented and makes releasable bindings. “But people are tired of seeing snowboarders carted off the slopes everyday.”
According to the National Ski Area Association, 33 people died skiing last year and only six people lost their lives snowboarding. Since 1993 there have been nine snowboarding deaths in the Sierra Nevada.
The lawsuit’s apparent demise was especially surprising considering its torturous history.
Homewood and a Santa Cruz sports store were originally included in the suit – Homewood because they allegedly failed to begin a search for Goodkind in a timely fashion and the ski shop for selling the snowboard and bindings.
Homewood settled out of court in 1998 after a Placer County Superior Court judge dismissed the case in favor of Burton and the ski shop, denying the snowboard was defective.
“It would have cost us more for legal expenses than it would to settle,” said Homewood Chief Executive Officer Jim Mitchell.
The case against Burton was allowed to proceed, however, when a California Appellate Court, overturned the original ruling.
Burton and others in the industry have argued that snowboarders are aware of the risks they assume. And the U.S. Supreme Court has agreed, holding that skiing and snowboarding are inherently dangerous and that those who take part do so at their own risk.
Many people fear that the Burton settlement will encourage other suits against snowboard manufacturers. Even as this suit came to an abrupt end, a similar case was filed against GNU Snowboards in Washington state.
“If I were Burton I would have fought it all the way,” said Bob Daly, owner of two South Shore snowboard shops. “Sometimes companies take the path of least resistance for financial reasons, but that can become a very well worn path before you know it.”
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