3 months suspended sentence for forgetting beacon

An Austrian ski tourer has received a three month [suspended] prison sentence for the manslaughter of his wife. The case centered around the use of avalanche beacons. According to the Salzburg court he was touring with his supposedly inexperienced wife with their beacons switched off and in their rucksacks.

Fresh snow had fallen on the 17th March 2010 when the couple undertook a tour to Radstadt near Obertauern. The man told Austrian radio “We thought we’d go down a safe route. We were sure that we would not need our beacons. My wife has always trusted me”. After testing the snow-pack with other tourers the woman went on ahead with the man following behind to help in case of problems. He apparently triggered a slab measuring 80 by 250 meters which buried his wife. The slide occurred on a 35° slope the risk was given as Considerable (3/5). The lack of beacon seriously delayed finding the victim even when rescue services arrived on the scene. The 58 year old woman had suffered from serious head injuries after being buried over a meter in dense snow. The defendant’s lawyer was stunned by the verdict and said he and his client needed time to decide whether to appeal.

If the sentence is not appealed it will add to case law putting additional responsibilities on more experienced members of backcountry groups (already established in France) and could effectively mandate trail head transceiver checks, at least in Austria. One might think that losing his wife was punishment enough but the ruling may leave the man open to additional civil claims by the victim’s family.

The verdict has surprised experts

Michael Larcher, director of education of the Austrian Alpine Association has questioned the verdict. He points out that although the woman was less experienced than her husband they had been touring together for years, “she was no beginner but had enough personal knowledge to know to turn on her beacon. Given that the lack of beacon was the main reason for the verdict, in my opinion, you cannot put all the responsibility on the husband, it is an issue of personal responsibility”

Estolf Müller, representing the Austrian Mountain Rescue Service said that “judging who is experienced is legally very difficult, I’m really sceptical when the courts intervene in a private sport so long as innocent bystanders are not endangered. When you go into the backcountry everyone has to be responsible for themselves.”

Further Information


Posted by davidof on Monday, 10 October, 2011 at 01:56 PM

A very worrying verdict - let’s hope, for the sake of people’s freedom to enjoy adventure in a manner they think fit, this does not herald a trend.  If people want to undertake adventurous sports, even in a reckless manner, that should be a matter for them - as long as it does not impose on the welfare of others.  It should not be of any interest to the courts.  Clearly this court does not understand the value of and the yearning for adventure that frees so many of us from what might otherwise be the humdrum monotony of everyday life.  And with that, not only comes immeasurable benefits to those brave enough to take the risks but to society at-large.  I hope this is appealed, so that right and common sense prevails.

Posted by  on  Friday, 14 October, 2011  at 12:42 PM

Of course we don’t know all the facts of the case, but as someone who spends a large part of his professional life leading ski touring groups (I am an IFMGA mountain guide), I cannot imagine any circumstances which would justify this verdict. Qualified guides know we will always have responsibility in the mountains whether or not we are working, but can recreational skiers really be expected to shoulder this enormous legal liability, or worse are we to just let them find out about it when the worst happens? It seems the wife’s beacon was in her own sac at the time of the accident; does this mean then that if my wife is injured while not wearing a seatbelt when I am driving, I could be prosecuted? I have after all been driving a few years longer than her.

Posted by  on  Friday, 14 October, 2011  at 11:05 PM

@John - yes definitely. In a car there is a clear responsibility on the part of the driver as the one in charge of the vehicle, and in many countries the law is exactly as you state. The driver must make sure all passengers are wearing their safety belts before heading off ... I think it is not a good comparison in any case.

The driver of a car has total control of the vehicle (hence the term passenger). In a group each skier decides where they should go. But here the avalanche was set off from above. There are many studies on the heuristics of avalanche accidents and how group dynamics can play into an individuals’ decision to wear or not wear a beacon and to ski or not ski a certain slope. I think the easy thing is - just wear it ... bring it, wear it, turn it on. Why even make it into a decision? It is an easy piece of kit to wear. Should this guy be punished for his wife not wearing it ? I don’t agree with the court. I am just bringing up something totaly unrelated - common sense.

Posted by  on  Sunday, 16 October, 2011  at 10:32 PM

Yes - a very worrying verdict that surely has implications beyond ski-touring for any adventure activity and that impacts upon our various reasons for doing those activities. If the ‘passenger in a car’ analogy is not the best (as there are legal reasons as ‘Firechick’ says) then maybe a better comparison is a couple out cycling and deciding not to wear helmets (as, I believe, there is no legal requirement to do so); one falls/collides with a wall/whatever and suffers fatal head injuries. Should the other be done for manslaughter? I think not!? The commonsense is to wear a helmet and the commonsense is to switch one’s transceiver on.

Posted by  on  Tuesday, 18 October, 2011  at 11:20 AM

There is a couple of issue here that would of lead to the proceedings

1. Instructor was being paid to guide the group
2. Since it was a fee paying exercise avalanche protocols must be adhered to clearly this was not the case.

Remember if you receive money for an activity you are deemed responsible for your actions.

Posted by  on  Wednesday, 19 October, 2011  at 04:21 PM
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