Climbing Tower Sued for $4.7 Million

Photo: alpinetowers.com
Photo: alpinetowers.com

Alpine Towers International based in Asheville, North Carolina, was sued for $4.7 million after the plaintiff,  a 17-year-old student fell 20’ and was rendered a paraplegic.

This case could have major implications within the indoor climbing industry.

Recreation-Law.com has broken the case down for us:

The plaintiff was climbing the tower with another student belaying him. The belay rope became stuck in the belay device. The instructor was close by, and the student attempted to un-stick the rope herself. In doing so the belayer lost control of the rope, and the climber/plaintiff fell to the ground breaking his back. The plaintiff was rendered a paraplegic by the fall.

The plaintiff sued based on three causes of action.

(1) Alpine Towers was strictly liable for the manufacture and sale of a defective and unreasonably dangerous product; (2) Alpine Towers negligently designed the climbing tower without adequate safety equipment, instructions, and warnings; and (3) Alpine Towers was negligent in failing to properly train Fort Mill’s faculty on how to safely use the climbing tower, particularly in failing to train the faculty to teach student belayers to safely use the belay system.

The jury found for the plaintiff and his parents on all causes of action and awarded the plaintiff damages.

It awarded $500.00 for strict liability, $900,000.00 in actual damages and $160,000.00 in punitive damages for negligent design of the tower, and $2,500,000.00 in actual damages and $950,000.00 in punitive damages for Alpine Tower’s negligence in training Fort Mill’s faculty. The jury also returned a verdict for Larry’s parents for $240,000.00 in actual damages.

Grigri versus ATC

The first issue and the third most aggravating issue in this decision was how the court accepted the jury’s decision on the strict liability theory claim. The plaintiff’s experts argued that the belay device being used on the tower was operated manually and if the defendant has supplied automatic devices the fall would not have occurred.

…Gerald George, Ph.D., testified that the Trango Jaws relies on the absence of human error to safely belay a climber. He explained that it was feasible to use an alternative design for the climbing tower incorporating a belay device called a GriGri.

“Absence of human error” is how all accidents occur.

Dr. George testified that without incorporating a “fail-safe” belay device such as the GriGri into the design of a climbing tower used for students, the climbing tower is defective and unreasonably dangerous.

So by using a particular belay device, which was not part of the climbing wall, the defendant was strictly liable. The defendant was liable for the injury because the tower was “defective” based upon the choice of belay devices.

Negligent Design

The next issue was the negligent design claim.

[Plaintiff] presented evidence that Alpine Towers conducted a ten-year study ending in 1999 that concluded the majority of accidents on its climbing towers were caused by human error, specifically belayers dropping their climbers.

Proof of the negligent design claim is knowing you have a problem that injures people and failing to do anything about it. The study was the proof of the knowledge, and the plaintiff’s injury was proof of failing to do anything about the problem.

Granted, it seems to be a stretch to apply design to belayers dropping climbers; however, if you look at the structure as including the ropes and belay devices, then the claim makes more sense.

Problems for our industry

The negligent training claims the final claim and the one that will create the most problems for other people within the industry. The contract signed by the defendant for moving the tower stated that defendant would teach the owner how to use the tower. The purchaser, Fort Mill, intended to use it to teach climbing and belaying. The defendant had manuals, curriculums and classes in how to belay; however, it did not teach the owner how to teach how to belay.

First, Alpine Towers uses a written syllabus when it conducts classes to teach adults how to belay. However, it did not provide the syllabus to Fort Mill to enable Fort Mill to effectively teach students. Second, the belay system designed by Alpine Towers relies on a faculty supervisor to ensure the students are properly belaying the climbers. In addition to [defendant’s employee’s] testimony as to where the faculty supervisor should be positioned, the CEO of Alpine Towers, Joe Lackey, testified, “the staff member should stand directly behind the climber, . . . not thirty feet away.”

However, it gets worse. The plaintiff’s expert testified that no one should belay until they have been tested.

Moreover, despite knowing that Fort Mill would be teaching students to belay and that students were more susceptible to making belaying errors than adults, Alpine Towers did not teach Fort Mill that it should test the students’ competency before allowing them to belay a climber. [Plaintiff’s expert] testified “as a matter of course in my industry, participants are tested,” including whether they are “able to . . . belay in a competent manner, catch falls, lower somebody . . . off a climb.”

However, the statements of the plaintiff’s experts were reinforced by the trade association that the defendant belonged to and that his own employees served on.

Alpine Towers has several employees who serve on the standards committee for the Association for Challenge Courses Technology, which [defendant] called a “climbing society.” Despite evidence of this standard climbing industry practice, Alpine Towers did not teach Fort Mill that it needed to test, how the tests should be conducted, or what particular skills should be tested.

Once again, the trade association (or as the defendant described it the “climbing society”) created standards which instead of helping the defendant win a trial, were used at trial to prove the defendant was negligent.

The final defense to the jury verdict raised by the defendant was Intervening Causation. Basically, this is an argument that something happened after the negligent acts of the defendant caused by a third party who either relieved the defendant of liability or is the real cause of the injury. If the intervening act was foreseeable, then it does not break the chain of liability between the parties. To be a defense, the intervening act must be the “bolt of lightning” without a thunderstorm, which came out of nowhere.

The test for whether a subsequent negligent act by a third party breaks the chain of causation to insulate a prior tortfeasor from liability is whether the subsequent actor’s negligence was reasonably foreseeable. “For an intervening act to break the causal link and insulate the tortfeasor from further liability, the intervening act must be unforeseeable.”

The defendant argued that the actions of the belayer, a co-defendant and the Fort Mill’s actions were an intervening cause. However, in this case, the acts of the defendant were foreseeable. In fact, for the belayer dropping a climber, the defendant had a study which showed what would happen.

It should be noted that the trade association sited above is not the Climbing Wall Association which has far stricter standards regarding the operation of climbing walls.  To read the conclusion of the case go to recreation-law.com.

 

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