Whitefish Mountain Resort Responds to Tree Well Death Lawsuit

By Beacon Staff

Attorneys for Whitefish Mountain Resort have filed court papers refuting a lawsuit alleging the ski resort should be held accountable for the death of a German exchange student who died after falling into a tree well.

The federal complaint, filed in U.S. District Court on Dec. 24, 2013, came three years after Niclas Waschle, 16, 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.

Attorney Mikel L. Moore, who is representing Whitefish Mountain Resort, filed an answer to the complaint on May 5, denying the allegations and demanding a jury trial.

Officials with Whitefish Mountain Resort on Big Mountain have previously said the lawsuit was groundless and that they intended to “defend it vigorously” in court, but the company had not yet filed an official response.

“Our answer is consistent with comments made soon after the complaint was filed, and that is that we believe the lawsuit is without merit and we intend to vigorously defend this case through trial if necessary,” Moore said. “Our answer is in line with that path that we have chosen.”

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.

The other defendants have not yet responded to the complaint, but U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy granted both parties extensions.

A separate complaint, filed at the same time as the federal lawsuit, remains pending in Flathead County District Court. The reason for jurisdiction in federal court is that Waschle was a resident of a foreign nation, Germany.

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