Family of man who died from ‘positional asphyxiation’ on chairlift settles wrongful death lawsuit against the ski resort



Jason Varnish (via the Burg Simpson law firm).

The children of a man who died while riding a chairlift in Colorado in February 2020 have settled their wrongful death lawsuit against the company that runs the ski resort.

Jason Varnish, 46, died on Feb. 13, 2020, shortly after attempting to board a chairlift at Blue Sky Basin at Colorado’s Vail Ski Mountain. According to his lawyers, Varnish’s death was the result of his jacket getting caught up in the chair, forcing him to hang from the lift for several minutes.

“The chair that Mr. Varnish was preparing to board came into the load line with the seat in the up position against the backrest of the chair,” the Burg Simpson law firm said in a press release announcing the settlement. “A rubber bumper attached to the chair seat frame, which is normally covered when the seat is in the down position, caught on Mr. Varnish’s jacket, entangling his jacket with the chair. The chair began to rise out of the lower terminal, and Mr. Varnish was lifted off his feet by the chair.”

Varnish was left “hanging from the chair by his jacket approximately 70 feet from the load line and 10 feet in the air for more than 8 minutes,” the press release said. “Unfortunately, Mr. Varnish’s jacket constricted his ability to breath, and he died of positional asphyxiation.”

The lawsuit, filed in September by Varnish’s children Cameron Varnish, Grace Varnish, and Luko Varnish, detailed the cascading events that lead to Varnish’s death, alleging that ski lift operators were improperly trained and failed to follow procedures and that the lift stations were not stocked with potentially life-saving equipment such as ladders.

For example, one of the lift operators at the top of the chairlift allegedly failed to notify his colleagues at the bottom of the lift that wind speeds were in excess of 25 miles per hour that day, a condition that may force the chairs into the “up” position. Although ski lift policy required such a notification, the top lift operator allegedly “consciously decided he would only call the bottom terminal if the wind speed was 30-35 mph,” the complaint said.

The bottom lift operator, meanwhile, allegedly didn’t see that the chair was in the up position, according to the complaint. That operator was also left alone at the bottom station after a second operator left his post without waiting for his replacement. This cost the rescue effort crucial time, the complaint says, because in order for the lift to be reversed — which would have brought Varnish back to solid ground — an operator at both the top and the bottom of the list must confirm the decision.

The bottom lift operator wasn’t able to answer the call from the top station, however, because he was trying to organize the effort to save Varnish, including placing a padded “catch bag” beneath him and helping other skiers form a “human pyramid” to try to reach him. When the skiers called for a ladder, the operator brought them a chair — because the bottom lift station wasn’t equipped with a ladder.

The complaint also says the bottom lift operator failed to tell ski patrol and lift operators that Varnish had said he was not able to breathe, implying that had those response teams known the situation, they may have acted more quickly.

“This was an unnecessary and preventable tragedy,” attorney Peter Burg said in the press release.

The press release also said that Vail contested the children’s claims and argued that the waiver and release provisions on the ski pass and other documents barred the complaint and any potential recovery.

Lawyers for the Varnish family said that the terms of the settlement are confidential.

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