Swiss prosecution could impact off-piste skiing

On the 27th December 2009 an avalanche in the Swiss Valais resort of Anzère which hit an open ski run triggered a major rescue operation involving 130 people, 8 avalanche dogs and 3 helicopters. The slide was probably caused by 3 off piste skiers. Experts believe that the legal process could lead to restrictions on off-piste skiing near to open ski runs.

The three skiers are facing prosecution for “for obstructing the free circulation of the public through negligence” specified by Article 237, paragraph 2, of the Swiss Penal Code. The skiers, doctors aged in their 30s and 40s, were skiing above the Rousses run. Their passage probably triggered a slab avalanche measuring 200x400 meters. The slide covered the run below, completely burying a teenage girl and injuring two other skiers. The girl was found alive with back injuries.

The three doctors helped with the initial rescue operation before leaving without giving their names. The police identified the group later. According to the police it is the first time they’ve been able to identify skiers causing such an avalanche. A report by the SLF (Swiss Snow and Avalanche Research Center) in Davos concluded that “it was highly probable that the additional load caused by the three skiers was the cause the avalanche.”

The skiers face up to 3 years imprisonment and a fine. They will also have to pay the costs of the rescue operation which are estimated between 50,000 and 100,000 Swiss Francs. The director of the ski company, Tele Anzère, has stated that their insurers have already paid out for the rescue and will sue the three men for damages if they are found guilty.

According to one of the defence lawyers the case is not clear cut. He thinks negligence will be hard to prove. Despite the fact that the avalanche risk was 3/5 (Considerable) the slope was already well tracked and was even being used by local ski instructors teaching off piste technique. In addition the SLF report says the slide was probably triggered by the last skier so why are the other two being prosecuted? Other commentators have pointed out that if the area was at risk why wasn’t the slope below closed by the resort?

Swiss avalanche expert Robert Bolognesi told that if the case is proved “it will effectively ban off piste skiing above open and marked ski runs at certain avalanche risk. The penalties, up to 3 years in prison and 50,000 S&R costs plus any fines and legal fees wiill be very dissuasive. Even if the skiers are acquitted the responsibility will fall on the ski resort who will be obliged to close sections of the ski area depending on the risk or they will have to completely fence off certain areas. According to the Valais police the case will send the important message that the off piste area is no longer beyond the law both on the part of skiers and the ski resorts. Swiss freeriders are concerned about a move to American style laws were off piste skiing is strictly controlled. The result will also have implications for insurance companies who may face having to pay out for third party costs caused by their clients.

Further Information

Posted by davidof on Monday, 08 November, 2010 at 07:13 AM

Interesting post, I’ll be keeping an eye on this case

Posted by  on  Friday, 12 November, 2010  at 10:54 AM
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