Ski racer charged with manslaughter goes on trial
EAGLE, Colo. – A man whose deadly collision with another skier at Vail prompted a safety crackdown by Colorado resorts went on trial for manslaughter Monday, with prosecutors saying he ignored poor snow conditions as he sped down the mountain.
Nathan Hall, 21, collided with Allan Cobb, 33, after finishing his shift as a lift operator in April 1997. Cobb died a few minutes later.
Since it was the last day of the season, Hall should have known the snow was heavy and wet, like ”mashed potatoes,” prosecutor John Clune said during opening statements.
”He was bombing down the mountain,” Clune said. ”He was reckless. That is why Allan isn’t with us.”
Defense attorney Brett Heckman said Hall was surprised by the poor snow conditions. He also asked the jury of six women and eight men to recall popular opinion in the days before Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono were killed in ski accidents.
”The evidence of skier safety awareness was not, unfortunately, as it is now,” he said. ”This has happened to anybody who skis.”
Heckman has called the collision an accident and said skiing is a sport that carries an inherent danger.
In testimony after opening statements, Cobb’s fiancee, Christi Neville, burst into tears as she recalled hearing the collision and turning to see him lying in a fetal position in the snow as a skier in a yellow jacket flew past her.
”It was almost like a blur of yellow in the air,” she said of Hall.
She kicked off her skis and hiked 15 feet up to Cobb. ”I lifted up his head and all I saw was blood. I started screaming,” she said.”Allan was gurgling blood.
”I still had hope. It didn’t sink in, at that point, that he was really going to die.”
Vail Municipal Judge Buck Allen, 72, said Hall passed him at a high rate of speed and, seconds later, he saw a ski flying 12 feet into the air.
”I don’t think you’d see many people on the U.S. Olympic Team going at that speed in those conditions,” said Allen, who has skied at Vail for 37 years.
Cobb’s family sued Vail Resorts and won a settlement of an undisclosed amount. Hall is charged with reckless manslaughter, possession of alcohol by a minor and possession of marijuana. If convicted, he faces up to six years in prison.
Two courts dismissed the charges, ruling a reasonable person would not have expected skiing too fast to cause another person’s death. But the Colorado Supreme Court overturned those decisions, setting the stage for Hall’s trial.
The case is being closely watched amid growing complaints about speedy skiers and snowboarders. After Cobb’s death, many Colorado resorts tightened their safety policies, threatening to strip season passes from hotdogging skiers and snowboarders. The National Ski Areas Association launched a safety awareness campaign a year ago.
James Chalat, who specializes in ski law, said the trial could affect the image of ski areas that are trying to portray a safe environment.
”It will be a huge advantage for Colorado ski areas for the public to view Colorado as a state willing to enforce safe skiing policy with the full force of the law,” he said. ”Killing someone recklessly is not part of skiing.”
The ski industry has put a priority on safety in recent years, with Vail even creating a squad to catch speedy skiers and snowboarders. The number of deaths nationally declined from 39 in 1998-99 to 30 last year.
On the Net:
National Ski Areas Association: http://www.nsaa.org/index.htm
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