Prison sentence for snowboarders after fatal avalanche

Two snowboarders who triggered an avalanche that killed a girl at La Clusaz in February 2003 have been sentenced to 2 and 4 months in prison. They had been tried for “manslaughter due to lack of care, negligence or security”. Both sentences were suspended by the Annecy Criminal Court. On the day of the accident Météo France had announced a considerable avalanche risk (3 on a scale of 5) with particular dangers close to ridgelines.

la clusaz avalanche
© Frederic Laugier

The two snowboarders had decided to climb on foot along a ridge at 2540 meters altitude in the Col de Bellachat sector when they triggered a slab avalanche. The slide, measuring some 50 by 500 meters hit a teenage girl skiing as part of a group of youngsters on an off-piste session with a guide. All were equiped with avalanche beacons and helmets. The avalanche, which occured at 13h30, also crossed the Crintiaux piste but no skiers on the slope were hurt by the slide. The girl was found after ten minutes under the snow thanks to her avalanche transceiver but in a state of cardiac-arrest and hypothermia. After emergency medical treatment she was airlifted to Annecy then Geneva where she died. The incident provoked considerable anger at the time.

Three days after the accident the two snowboarders turned themselves in, however the state prosecutor initially decided not to proceed with the investigation. The parents of Cécile Bruttin decided to launch a civil action which prompted the prosecutor to take action. The father of Cécile told reporters that “although this judgement won’t bring our daughter back, people should not go into the mountains putting others at risk, the two young men didn’t want to kill my daughter but they committed a tragic error”. One of the boarders responded “when you are young you want to push your limits but I would have rather taken into account the danger before causing this tragedy.” The prosecutor also asked for a 2 month suspended against the guide but this was rejected by the court who said that he had followed normal safety procedures.

After a season in which 57 backcountry travellers died in avalanches this may be a sign that French courts are getting tough with skiers and boarders that injure others. Previous attempts to prosecute have been rejected by the courts who have said that they are not competent to judge a domain where there are no explicit laws governing off piste skiing. The judgement might be appealed but anyone going off-piste would be wise to take note for the forthcoming season.

Further Informaton

La Clusaz avalanche victims dies in hospital
Avalanche kids risk year in jail
Avalanche starters released by court

Posted by on Sunday, 19 November, 2006 at 11:00 PM

I guess from the outcome that the evidence showed the ski party were in situ prior to the snowboard party entering higher ground, therefore the snowboarders course of travel showed a “...lack of care, negligence or security” and so put the skiers at fatal risk?

Posted by Damian on  Tuesday, 21 November, 2006  at 01:33 PM

That’s a good comment and the whole case raises a number of issues.

The avalanche covered the open Crintiaux piste, in Frederic Laugier’s photo reportage you can see that the piste is covered to a good dpeth. Should the resort have opened the access to the sector given that an avalanche of this scale was possible?

The area is heavily used by off-piste skiers but maybe the guide had some responsibility, especially given the young age of his group to not take them where they were below other groups. Perhaps difficult these days in the Haute-Savoie/Savoie ski areas.

Without being 100% certain as I don’t have the police report to hand my understanding is that the snowboarders were climbing the ridge before the group started skiing the off-piste below, they may not even have been aware that people were on the ridge. An error by the guide, well he could reasonably sure that people would be using the ridge to access other off-piste as this is common practise.

This is a very big decision by the court, previously French courts have decided that where both groups are off-piste there is no legislation covering accidents.

Posted by davidof on  Tuesday, 21 November, 2006  at 05:12 PM

Agreed.  How does one modify their behaviour in response to this conviction?  Primarily, my behaviour is constrained because I never want to cause someone’s death, but neither do I want to do something that can put me in prison.  Prison is a deterrent.  In the future I think I will stop moving every time someone crosses below my ascent route and is within the alpha angle run-out that they walked (were guided) into.  Or perhaps I will just levitate one foot off the snow surface until they pass from risk.  A risk that I did not put them in.

Telling is the number of tracks in those pictures of the bowl area.  Just like many Haute Savoie resorts, it seems everyone was out for their bit of resort based off-piste fun that day and that at any stage one may have another person/party above or below them.  That the avalanche hit the piste probably did not help the defendant’s cause.  Perhaps the snowboarders should not have hiked the upper ridge knowing that directly below their higher route was a popular traverse line which was busy that day.  They should have reasonably expected their actions to threaten those people randomly yet frequently passing below them on ‘safe’ well travelled terrain.  But it appears all the boarders did was walk a little further up the ridge than the last party had already done. Where to draw the line?  Perhaps don’t go higher than the off-piste area already tracked out.  That isn’t practical as the lower easy to access areas always get tracked out first and, because we are in mountains, we naturally move upwards.
This is an unnerving decision.  Having said that, I am expert in this topic nor French Law, and do not know the set of facts submitted as evidence.  Of course, no disrespect to the young victim or her family is intended.
I am motivated by off-piste and back country touring and this legal precedent could be reason number 13 to stay away from resorts.  There are too many people and too much natural and legal uncertainty in an environment that most participants assume is controlled.

Posted by Damian on  Tuesday, 21 November, 2006  at 06:33 PM
Page 1 of 1 pages

Comments are now closed



Archive Summary

Forum Posts

Sunday, 19 May, 2013

Girl survives 4 nights out at 4000m on the Vert

Posted by juice at 11:44 PM
• (3) Posts • (1891) views •

Monday, 29 April, 2013

Colorado's deadliest slide in 50 years

Posted by Simon Scott at 01:41 PM
• (3) Posts • (1582) views •


Thursday, 25 April, 2013

PGHM Officer killed near Ref Argentiere

Posted by juice at 01:38 PM
• (5) Posts • (1643) views •

Friday, 19 April, 2013

avalanche in st christophe

Posted by davidski at 11:32 AM
• (1) Posts • (1401) views •

Monday, 15 April, 2013

Avalanche on the Tete de Chevrette, Vallorcine

Posted by Alan Scowcroft at 04:57 PM
• (1) Posts • (1379) views •

Thursday, 11 April, 2013

Alpine Bindings

Posted by djfrost at 10:08 PM
• (10) Posts • (1521) views •