Whitefish Mountain Resort Settles Lawsuit Over Tree Well Death

Settlement terms confidential between ski area and family of German exchange student

By Tristan Scott
Tree well warning signs at Whitefish Mountain Resort. Beacon File Photo

Whitefish Mountain Resort has settled a wrongful death lawsuit involving a 16-year-old German exchange student’s 2010 death in a tree well.

The wrongful death lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in 2013, three years after Niclas Waschle fell head first into a tree well and suffocated 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, were plaintiffs in the lawsuit, which alleged that the mountain was negligent and sought punitive damages and compensation for the family’s loss.

In an order signed in June, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy agreed to dismiss the lawsuit with prejudice, meaning it cannot be re-litigated.

By agreement of the parties, the settlement terms are confidential.

“Despite the settlement, Whitefish Mountain Resort maintains its consistent position that it has no liability for Mr. Waschle’s unfortunate death,” according to a statement from the resort. “From Winter Sports Inc.’s perspective, as is often the case in lawsuits, it agreed to the settlement for reasons other than a belief that the Waschle family could prove its claims in court.”

The federal complaint listed 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. Molloy dismissed the Vanhorns as defendants in the lawsuit, a decision that was unsuccessfully challenged in the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

According to the lawsuit, on Dec. 29, 2010, Waschle was skiing 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 family alleged 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 resort countered that Waschle wasn’t skiing within his abilities and that tree wells are an inherent danger of skiing.

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

That year, the hazard of inbounds snow-immersion suffocation (SIS), the peril of which is often dwarfed by the domineering backcountry threat of avalanches, quickly rose to the fore of a national conversation about ski area safety, responsibility and risk, in part because the 2010-2011 ski season saw an unprecedented nine SIS fatalities nationwide, all involving tree wells. The previous record-setting year was 2007-2008, when seven SIS deaths occurred.

For more information about tree well safety, visit the website www.deepsnowsafety.org.

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