Serious Judgement for La Grave

The Marseille administrative court has found the commune of La Grave in the Hautes-Alpes department responsible for the death of a young snowboarder in 1996.  On the 27 December Pascal Ambrosino, aged 19, died after falling 20 meters from the Fréaux cliffs.

The court heard that the snowboarder was following tracks while descending to the village.  These tracks lead him over the cliff.  The court decided that la Grave had not established that the victim was at fault and that the danger was not clearly signposted.  The commune was ordered to pay 13,000 Euros to the mother of the victim who had started the action in 1999.

Entrance gate to the la Grave area

The court continued that it was up to the Mayor of La Grave to signal dangers appropriately in his high-mountain ski area and that on the day of the accident this sign posting was insufficient. Some commentators have seen the judgement as reflecting the ‘fashion of security at any price’. However a similar case came before the French Supreme court (Conseil d’Etat) way back on the 22 of December, 1971.  The court found against the commune of Mont-de-Lans near les Deux Alpes after a skier fell 100 meters into the Combe-du-Thuy.  The court stated that communes’ must signpost dangers on off-piste routes that are accessible by lift and, because of the configuration of the ski domain, are regularly taken by skiers.

Another accident, this time in La Grave itself occured on the 18th December 1988 and seems relevant.  An avalanche in the Vallons de la Meije during a period when the avalanche risk was 4 [high] killed a skier. The administrative court in Marseille said that although la Grave was not strictly a ski station the existance of ski lifts meant that it was a large off piste domain under the control of the commune and that they had an obligation to take measures to inform clients of dangers appropriate to the circumstances.  The commune was found partly responsible for the accident and this decision was confirmed on appeal.

An English snowboarder was killed on the 17th of February this year after falling over cliffs in Meribèl, friends of the young man claimed that the route, although off-piste, was well used by skiers and snowboarders and that the cliffs were not obvious from above.

According to an informed member of the Skipass forum La Grave intends to appeal the decision.


Posted by davidof on Monday, 05 April, 2004 at 12:18 PM

I hope this isn’t the beginning of the end for off-piste skiing with more and more relatives of victims filing suit against communes or ski areas. This is such an American style judgement - I find it shocking. It is an abandonment of the idea that the person who takes up a sport is responsible for their own safety.

In my opinion, if you go off-piste that means, you have decided quite deliberately to leave the safety and watchful eyes of the pisteur-secouristes and have decided to accept the lack of marked trails, and decided to take matters into your own hands. Just because ‘everyone’ is doing it nowadays doesn’t make it any less so! The reasoning here is so weak!

It is the responsiblity of the person doing the skiing to look where they are going, and not blindly follow tracks when you don’t know the terrain. And if you don’t know the terrain you should not ski so fast that you cannot stop yourself if you cannot see what lies ahead. That is purely common sense.

If you are too stupid or stubborn to understand or believe this, then perhaps you will come to an unfortunate end—and really that is your own fault—not the fault of the townspeople below!

As long as the borders between the piste and off-piste areas are marked as such (and the warnings on the off-piste markers DO warn of the dangers!), this should be the rule.

What is next? Avalanche or crevasse fall deaths at the Vallee Blanche off-piste routes being blamed on the town of Chamonix just because it is a popular (yet unmarked) route that is regularly taken by tourists, and a lift brings there for easier access? That is the logical conclusion of this type of thinking and would mean the end of skiing the Vallee Blanche.

I don’t want the French alps to start to look like the USA where every accessible cliff is surrounded by a protective railing so that stupid people don’t fall off the edge, or where every 20 feet there is some sign warning you: ‘danger cliff ahead’ - that ruins the mountains for everyone.

The French courts should have rejected this case and instead sent a clear signal to all surfeurs and skiers that when going off-piste you are fully responsible for your own life. It is not something to take lightly just because it is now ‘la mode’, and you should not travel alone or even in a group of other inexperienced people, but should instead hire a professional guide if you need to learn how it is done. There simply is no excuse.

Posted by  on  Tuesday, 06 April, 2004  at 04:53 PM

Good comment Tankgirl!

I’m an experienced skier but only about 6 weeks in the french alpes (CH,VT,VD,LARC,AVO,ST FOY).

I think that the signs and ropes at lift arrival points clearly describes where the “managed” area ends and its your responibility if you cross the line. (at the places I’ve been)

One thing I miss when I look at a map over a skiresort is a topologic map from above with curves for altitude, maybe on a map like that its easier to define the boarder of the managed resort and get that out to the skiers/boarders as a complement to the signing and roping.

I want to be able to rent a guide and pay for his experience, not for administrative and building(fence and gates)costs.

Posted by  on  Wednesday, 07 April, 2004  at 10:32 AM

Coincidentally the French Communist daily paper l’Huma published a very intelligent article about the judgement on the 6th April, here is a link. in French and an automatic translation in English.

Posted by davidof on  Wednesday, 07 April, 2004  at 10:59 AM

This is an interesting case because of the unusual nature of La Grave as a “resort”.

In the case of the snowboarder killed in Meribel in February it seems quite reasonable for the resort management to say that they provide access to a controlled ski area and that going beyond that area is at your own risk entirely. In La Grave, however, the lifts provide access specifically to off-piste itineraries which are promoted by the resort’s management. I am no lawyer but I think this does, potentially, imply a greater responsibility on the part of the resort management for warning of hazards.

Perhaps in future all ski areas will only sell lift passes after the user signs a waiver to say that if they use the lift system to access off-piste areas they will hold the lift company harmless.

Posted by Playdreamer on  Wednesday, 07 April, 2004  at 01:35 PM

look i do agree about the simple fact that the minute you duck the rope it’s down to you but lets face it - a more explicit warning ccould be given at the top - like “… dangerous cliffs”. 

with the improvements in kit more and more people go off piste and there is an increasing lack of even the most basic mountain craft.  it would be easy to make the issues clearer to some of the younger and more reckless kids.

look at what it says on a packet of fags… danger of death.  be clear in the warnings.

Posted by  on  Tuesday, 13 April, 2004  at 11:59 AM
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