Case Changed Safety Practices On The Mountain
Mark and Rebecca Dickson were at Heavenly Valley on Aug. 31, 2009, celebrating their honeymoon. After hiking in the Adventure Peak area at the top of the Tamarack chairlift, the newlyweds returned to the chairlift to ride it down to the Heavenly Gondola and leave the mountain. They found the Tamarack chairlift unattended. After waiting several minutes for an attendant to arrive, they assumed the lift was self-serve and successfully boarded it in the downhill direction. What they did not know at the time they got on the lift was that the operator had been called away to investigate a failure of the 6,400-foot-long lightweight synthetic rope used in the Equipment Retrieval System of the Heavenly Flyer, a ZipRider amusement ride running parallel to the Tamarack chairlift. The Tamarack lift and the Flyer are separated by as little as 100 feet. Unfortunately for the Dicksons, the Tamarack operator failed to shut off the lift before leaving his station in clear violation of his training.
The Flyer’s retrieval rope was carried on high winds to the Tamarack, where it became entangled with the Dicksons’ chair, causing it to swing wildly. Mark was thrown to his death on the rocks 50 feet below while his bride hung on for her life. The lift was stopped after Mark fell and Rebecca was trapped for more than an hour before the rope could be cleared from the lift’s towers and she could be brought to the bottom terminal.
The retrieval rope broke under high wind conditions, which were consistently in excess of the ZipRider’s operational parameters in the hours before Mark Dickson’s death. Heavenly’s poor maintenance of the rope also contributed to its failure. In the months prior to the accident, Heavenly abandoned the inspection practices mandated by the ZipRider’s manufacturer. On the day Mark Dickson died, the ZipRider was understaffed and no supervisor trained in the ride’s operation was present to ensure that safety procedures were being followed.
In the aftermath of this tragedy, Heavenly failed to drug test any of the operators on duty despite the fact that there were multiple violations of Heavenly’s own safety procedures. Drug use had been a problem among Heavenly employees the previous summer on the same part of the mountain, but the resort’s management chose to forgo testing even though its drug abuse prevention plan allowed for such testing.
As a condition of the settlement that was reached just days before the trial was to begin, Heavenly admitted its operational failures on the day of the accident and agreed to implement changes to its training, operations and drug testing policies before it reopens the ZipRider.