Lawsuit over skier’s death settled

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Whitefish Mountain Resort has settled a federal lawsuit involving the 2010 death of a skier who fell into a tree well.

The family of Niclas Waschle, a 16-year-old exchange student from Germany who died after falling head-first into a tree well, sued the ski area along with his host family from Columbia Falls and the company that coordinated his exchange.

The lawsuit was filed in December 2013.

U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy in June granted a motion to dismiss the case against Whitefish Mountain Resort. Terms of the settlement are confidential, the resort said in a statement Tuesday.

“Despite the settlement, Whitefish Mountain Resort maintains its consistent position that it has no liability for Mr. Waschle’s unfortunate death,” the resort stated. “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.”

Waschle was skiing Dec. 29, 2010, near T-Bar 2 at Whitefish Mountain Resort when he fell into a tree well — an open pit at the base of an evergreen tree that grows deeper as the snowpack around the tree rises.

He was found and extricated by two other skiers who noticed his skis sticking out of the snow. Waschle died three days later at Kalispell Regional Medical Center after he was removed from life support. Doctors declared Waschle brain dead as the result of asphyxiation and suffocation.

The Waschles’ lawsuit claimed the area where Waschle was skiing wasn’t restricted in any way and there were no warning signs regarding the dangers of tree wells. The suit argued that the resort had the duty to mitigate or eliminate the danger of tree wells and the resort knew the risks posed by tree wells.

The resort countered that Waschle wasn’t skiing within his abilities and that tree wells are an inherent danger of skiing.

Last November, Molloy denied requests for summary judgment in the wrongful death case, saying enough evidence had been presented by Waschle’s attorneys to warrant their claim for punitive damages. Molloy also remove Fred and Lynne Vanhorn, Waschle’s host parents, from the lawsuit.

Following Waschle’s death, Whitefish Mountain Resort posted a list of tree-well safety tips and guidelines on its website and installed signs around the ski area warning of tree-well danger. According to the resort’s guidelines, skiers are advised to avoid deep snow and trees and to ski with a partner.

Two tree-well fatalities occurred on the slopes at Whitefish Mountain Resort during the 2013-14 ski season. Previous tree-well deaths on Big Mountain occurred in 1978, 1979, 1990, 2010 and 2011.

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