Exchange Family Dismissed as Defendants in Tree Well Death Lawsuit

Judge rules in favor of Columbia Falls host family in German exchange student's 2010 death at Whitefish Mountain Resort

By Tristan Scott
A snowboarder rides through the trees at Whitefish Mountain Resort on Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

A federal judge has absolved a Columbia Falls host family from liability in the death of a German exchange student who fell into a tree well at Whitefish Mountain Resort in December 2010.

The federal complaint, filed in U.S. District Court on Dec. 24, 2013, relates to the death of Niclas Waschle, 16, who fell while skiing alone near the T-bar 2 ski lift on Big Mountain. He died four days later.

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.

In an order Sept. 4, U.S. District Judge Don Molloy ruled in favor of the Vanhorns’ motion for summary judgment, effectively dismissing them as defendants in the lawsuit. Molloy ruled that the Vanhorns are immune to ordinary negligence claims under federal and state volunteer immunity statutes. As to the claims that the Vanhorns acted with gross misconduct and are subject to punitive damages, Molloy said there is no legal proof that the Vanhorns are liable, regardless of whether they warned Niclas of the danger of tree wells or skiing alone.

According to Molloy’s order granting summary judgment, Niclas Waschle stated in his application for placement as an exchange student that he was a frequent and skilled skier and had recently skied in the Austrian Alps.

The order states: “In September 2010, Fred Vanhorn contacted Niclas’s mother about purchasing a ski pass for Whitefish Mountain Resort. She provided both permission to purchase the ski pass for Niclas and funds to do so. Once the ski season began, Niclas skied ten days at Whitefish Mountain Resort between December 5, 2010 and December 29, 2010, sometimes in the company of Fred Vanhorn. At approximately 11:00 a.m. on December 29, 2010, Niclas was found unresponsive by other skiers below the top terminal of the T-bar ski lift, which was within the boundary of Whitefish Mountain Resort. The area was not blocked off in any way. Niclas had fallen in a tree well.”

Attorney Mikel L. Moore, who is representing Whitefish Mountain Resort, has denied the allegations on behalf of the resort and demanded a jury trial, tentatively scheduled for Nov. 30.

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.

“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 company’s response to the complaint: “Plaintiffs’ injuries and damages were caused by the inherent dangers and risks of skiing and they are obligated to accept full legal responsibility for their injuries and damages and their recovery is barred.”

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.