Ferndale woman seeks millions after injury at Mt. Baker Ski Area

BELLINGHAM - A Ferndale woman who was paralyzed by a sudden fall of snow and ice from the roof of White Salmon Lodge is seeking millions of dollars in damages from Mt Baker Ski Area.

The case went to the jury at midafternoon Friday, Sept. 3, after a three-week trial. After about two hours of deliberations, jurors quit for the Labor Day weekend. They will reconvene Tuesday, Sept. 7.

In closing arguments Friday, attorney Michael Wampold told jurors that Patricia Miller, a retired nurse, was entitled to past and future medical expenses of more than $2.6 million, as well as $5 million in general damages.

As Wampold interpreted the evidence in the case, ski area managers knew of the danger from the ice and snow on the roof, yet failed to do enough to prevent the incident that left Miller a paraplegic.

But attorney Ruth Nielsen, representing the ski area, contended that Miller was to blame, because she disregarded signs warning of the danger from ice falling off the roof, and crossed a barrier railing meant to keep people out of the danger zone.

This much is not in dispute: On Jan. 22, 2008, the 66-year-old Miller was sitting in a chair reading a book in an area outside the lodge, waiting for her husband to come in from the slopes. Suddenly, an accumulation of ice and snow on the lodge roof broke loose and collapsed on her, causing spinal cord damage and other injuries. She needed a month of hospitalization and many more months of rehabilitation.

"She continues to have nightmares about being buried under ice and snow," Wampold said.

Nielson argued that there was no practical way for ski area workers to clear snow from the lodge's steep roof without endangering themselves. She said they dealt with the danger by putting up signs and fencing off the danger zone with movable metal railings.

As Nielsen told it, Miller somehow got past the railing and moved her chair into the danger zone. Nielsen also highlighted testimony from a food service worker at the lodge, who testified he had warned Miller to get out of that area just minutes before the accident.

Wampold challenged the worker's credibility, saying the man did not mention his warning until long after the accident had occurred. In Wampold's view, other key details in his story appeared inconsistent with testimony given by other ski area employees.

Wampold did not deny that his client was on the wrong side of the movable barrier railing when the accident occurred, but he said it was difficult to believe that his client either climbed over the railing or managed to unhitch the interlocked metal segments while holding a chair and a book. He insisted that there must have been a gap in the railing that enabled Miller to wander into the danger zone without realizing it.

"Mrs. Miller was seated on a heated patio at Mount Baker Ski Area, and an ice boulder came down and crushed her," Wampold said. "That shouldn't happen. ... This is not a scene where you should expect danger."

Wampold argued that while his client had seen the danger signs, she thought she was far enough away from the building."She didn't know there were ice boulders up there that would come shooting out 15 feet," Wampold said. "She was well away from those eaves and overhangs. And then the avalanche occurs."

Wampold also argued that the warning signs fell short of being explicit enough. Instead of saying "KEEP OUT," they said "Danger! Snow sliding off roof," and "Please stay away from eaves and overhangs. Extreme slide danger."

Miller could well have been badly injured even if she had been on the right side of the railing, Wampold said. He noted that a young man testified he had been sitting close by Miller, on the other side of the railing, but managed to jump clear when he heard the rumble overhead. The snow and ice crushed his chair, Wampold said.

Nielsen responded that the White Salmon Lodge had had no accidents in 13 years before Miller's injury, and that was evidence that its safety procedures were more than adequate. Miller was to blame for her injuries because she ignored the signs and the barriers.

"The snow went where it was supposed to go," Nielsen said. "Mrs. Miller went where she wasn't supposed to go. ... The choice to sit there when she did was the choice that she made, and that's assuming the risk. ... Every other person who was there was seated in the service area."