Family of Exchange Student Sues Whitefish Mountain Resort for Skier’s Death

Plaintiffs allege resort and host family were negligent in teenager’s suffocation in a tree well

By Beacon Staff
The setting sun illuminates Big Mountain and the runs of Whitefish Mountain Resort. Beacon File Photo

The family of a 16-year-old German exchange student who suffocated after falling head first into a snow-packed tree well in 2010 has sued Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain, alleging gross negligence against the ski resort, the teen’s host family and the exchange agency that arranged his stay in Northwest Montana.

The federal complaint, filed in U.S. District Court on Dec. 24, makes its way through the legal channels three years after Niclas Waschle fell while skiing alone near the T-bar 2 ski lift on Big Mountain. His mother, Patricia Birkhold-Waschle, father Raimund Waschle and brother Philip Waschle are listed as plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which seeks damages and compensation for their loss and medical and other expenses.

The wrongful death lawsuit lists as defendants Winter Sports Inc., doing business as Whitefish Mountain Resort; World Experience, doing business as World Experience Teenage Student Exchange; and Fred and Lynne Vanhorn, the host family.

According to the lawsuit, on Dec. 29, 2010, Waschle was skiing on a groomed trail near the T-bar 2 ski lift when he fell head first into a hidden tree well, a large concealed pocket of loose, unpacked snow that forms around the base of a tree, along the edge of the groomed trail near where skiers dismount from T-bar 2.

He was found at 11 a.m. when two other skiers noticed skis protruding from the snow. He was unconscious and died three days later, when doctors in Kalispell declared him brain dead due to the effects of suffocation and his family removed him from life support.

The plaintiffs allege that the area in which Waschle was skiing was not restricted or blocked off in any way, nor were any warning notices posted regarding the dangers of tree wells on or adjacent to the trail.

As evidence of the resort’s negligence in warning skiers of the hazards, the lawsuit also references the death 10 days later of a snowboarder, 29-year-old Scott Meyer, who died under similar circumstances in a nearby tree well.

According to the lawsuit: “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. Montana law does not immunize a ski operator from its own negligence. That tree wells at or in the vicinity of the trail below the T-bar 2 lift were an unnecessary hazard that could have been eliminated or alleviated by reasonable care by Defendant Winter Sports, and that the hazard was well known to Defendant Winter Sports, is demonstrated by the fact that approximately 10 days later, on or about January 8, 2011, tragedy struck again when a 29-year-old snowboarder from Kalispell, Montana died in a tree well at or near the T-bar 2 ski lift east of Big Mountain’s summit, i.e. at or near the very spot where Niclas had encountered the tree well.”

The lawsuit also accuses the Vanhorns of negligence, alleging they should have known better than to have allowed Waschle to ski alone. The lawsuit states that Fred Vanhorn was a ski instructor at the resort and that the family and exchange program were negligent “in safeguarding Niclas by exposing Niclas to unnecessary and unreasonably risky behavior such as permitting him to ski in inclement weather alone.”

Whitefish Mountain Resport spokesperson Riley Polumbus said she had not yet reviewed the document because administrators at the resort had only just received it Tuesday afternoon. She said they would review it and comment after the New Year.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Steven Johnson, of Great Falls, also could not be reached for comment.

The resort encourages snowboarders to always ski within sight of a friend or companion, and refers them to a website about tree wells and deep snow safety: skiwhitefish.com/TreeWellSafety.pdf