WHITEFISH, Mont. – The German family of a 16-year-old exchange student who died while skiing at Whitefish Mountain Resort in Western Montana has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the resort in federal court.
The family of Niclas Waschle filed the lawsuit Dec. 24 in U.S. District Court in Montana and also names the host family and the exchange agency, contending gross negligence. The plaintiffs are his mother, Patricia Birkhold-Waschle; his father, Raimund Waschle; and his brother, Philip Waschle.
The lawsuit said Niclas Waschle was skiing alone on the edge of a groomed trail on Dec. 29, 2010, when he fell headfirst into a tree well and suffocated. The family is seeking damages and compensation, plus medical and other expenses.
Whitefish Mountain Resort, owned by Winter Sports Inc., said in a statement that the lawsuit is groundless and is compounding the tragedy by attempting to blame innocent parties for known risks involved with skiing.
“Tree well and deep snow immersion accidents such as this one occur in off-groomed, forested (off-piste) areas with deep, unconsolidated snow,” the statement said. “It is not reasonable to identify a particular tree among the tens of thousands within the resort boundary that has a dangerous tree well by sight.”
Also named in the lawsuit is World Experience, doing business as World Experience Teenage Student Exchange. A message left by the Associated Press was not returned Saturday.
The host family, Fred and Lynne Vanhorn, is also named. The family declined to comment to the AP on Saturday.
According to the lawsuit, Niclas Waschle was skiing near the T-bar 2 ski lift when he fell into a hidden tree well, which form around the base of trees and can be difficult to escape. The lawsuit said the tree well was along the edge of the groomed trail close to where skiers dismount from the ski lift.
Two other skiers found Waschle at about 11 a.m. when they spotted skis sticking out of the snow. Waschle was unconscious and died three days later after being declared brain dead due to suffocation. His family removed him from life support.
The family contends the area where Waschle fell wasn’t blocked off or restricted, and had no warning notices about possible dangers. The lawsuit also notes the death of a 29-year-old snowboarder 10 days later in a nearby tree well.
“Defendant Winter Sports owed Niclas a duty of reasonable care, which it breached, and that breach proximately caused and was the legal cause of Niclas’ suffering and death,” the lawsuit contends. “Montana law does not immunize a ski operator from its own negligence.”
The lawsuit said the exchange program and the Vanhorns were negligent “in safeguarding Niclas by exposing Niclas to unnecessary and unreasonably risky behavior such as permitting him to ski in inclement weather alone.” The lawsuit said Fred Vanhorn, a ski instructor at the resort, should have known about the dangers of skiing alone.
Waschle had a season pass for the ski area and was a student at Columbia Falls High School.