MAMMOTH LAKES (CBSLA) — Broken bones. A crushed face. An amputated leg. For Kathleen Willhide Michiulis a day of snowboarding at Mammoth took a sudden and traumatic turn.
Now she has a warning to others about a hidden danger found on the slopes.
Back in 2011, Kathleen was snowboarding with her family at Mammoth Mountain.
She was wrapping up her last run of the day before the slopes closed when she had a fateful encounter with a massive machine called a snowcat — a four ton tractor commonly used to groom snow at ski resorts.
“Just ran me over. Just kept going and ran me over,” said Kathleen.
Kathleen says when the snowcat made a wide left turn in front of her, the two collided and she was sucked underneath.
“Basically the machine did most of the work, amputating my leg and then it broke my right leg in 17 pieces and crushed my face. Well, every bone in my face was crushed,” Kathleen said.
Doctors say the tiller did most of the damage. It’s a spinning blade with razor sharp teeth.
It’s supposed to even out potentially unsafe ruts in the powder but it operates out of sight — underneath the snow — and skiers often trail behind to ride the fresh powder left behind.
“No amount of uneven snow can be more dangerous than an industrial tiller,” said Jae Lee.
Lee is an attorney who represented Kathleen in a seven-year-long legal battle with Mammoth Mountain.
He argued the snowcat operator was grossly negligent for running the tiller on an open ski run, which he says Mammoth’s own safety policy warns against.
Mammoth says the snowcat was traveling at 8 miles per hour with its lights and alarms activated.
A lower court dismissed Kathleen’s case, saying what happened to her was an inherent risk of the activity outlined in the liability waiver she signed that mentioned “over snow vehicles.”
It also said she agreed to never sue for negligence.
CBSLA asked a ski and snow safety expert about the industry standards for running a tiller on an open ski run. He said the best practice is to avoid doing it. But if necessary, to guard the skier in some way, like closing the trail or having patrollers guard it.
Feeling the same way, Lee took Kathleen’s case all the way to the California Supreme Court. However, the court also refused to hear it.
“I’m completely disappointed it’s over in the way it is,” Kathleen said.
CBSLA reached out to Mammoth Mountain for a comment. In a written statement they said in part:
“As the Court of Appeal’s decision made abundantly clear, Ms. Michulis’ incident was due to risks inherent in the sport, and had nothing to do with Mammoth’s safety procedures. Out of some 450 ski areas in the United States, Mammoth earned the National Ski Area Association’s Overall Program Safety Award two of the last three years.”
“This is a huge machine, and they’re running it right next to you,” Kathleen said.
Lee says the Supreme Court decision will likely be cited in future gross negligence lawsuits, making it harder for consumers to hold all kinds of companies accountable.
“Hopefully we can at least get a word. Something out there so people know that this is a possibility,” said Kathleen.