Massive Auto Belay Lawsuit Settlement Hits the Industry

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Man signing papers
Vertical World and C3 Manufacturing recently agreed to pay a climber $6 million, one of the largest settlements in the climbing gym industry’s history, following an auto belay accident. (Photo by Scott Graham on Unsplash)

As reported last week by Delaney Miller at Climbing.com, a multi-year (and multi-million dollar) lawsuit related to an auto belay accident at Vertical World in Seattle, Washington, was recently settled. Specifically, and as a result of the settlement, Vertical World and C3 Manufacturing (makers of the Perfect Descent auto belay) collectively agreed to pay $6 million to a climber who sustained multiple injuries in a fall related to the operation of a Perfect Descent auto belay.

A press release about the settlement from the climber’s lawyers referred to the injuries as “life-altering,” including “12 pelvic fractures, a sacral fracture, a left radial fracture, fractured ribs, bladder laceration, a traumatic brain injury (TBI) and lung injuries.”

The same press release stated that the fall occurred on August 1, 2019, and “was caused by a combination of factors including alleged defects with the auto-belay device, improper supervision by Vertical World staff, and inadequate training for climbers by Vertical World. Despite using the device properly, the climber fell when the auto-belay device failed to function as intended.”

Trango Holds Pardners

In response, Vertical World released its own statement, which largely refuted the above information, and expounded, “After extensive testing, neither [Vertical World] nor investigators hired by either side’s law firm was able to gather any evidence of a malfunction or device failure. There were recalls on C3’s devices over the years, and every notice VW received was promptly handled accordingly.”

Furthermore, Vertical World’s president, Rich Johnston, elaborated to Climbing.com that the accident was due to the climber improperly clipping into Vertical World’s Perfect Descent auto belay.

Amid the conflicting statements is the undeniable fact that the settlement is among the largest in the history of the climbing gym industry and comes at a time when auto belays are widely used at climbing gyms around the world, raising concerns about the potential ripple effects for climbing gyms and auto belay use in the United States, in particular. Shortly after the news of the settlement, climbing journalist Andrew Bisharat published an article on Evening Sends titled, “Will Climbing Gyms Survive the Lawsuits?” Elsewhere, Andrew McLemore, writing for GearJunkie, postulated, “The settlement could have far-reaching consequences for climbing gyms, many of which have auto-belay devices that allow climbers to scale and descend tall walls without needing a human belayer.”

News related to this story—and the various responses within the industry—is evolving. Stay tuned to CBJ for further coverage.

Rockwerx

Additional Resources

Climbing gym operators using auto belays are encouraged to always follow best practices when it comes to auto belay risk mitigation, specifically (device maintenance, communication, staff training, orientations and assessments, barriers/belay gates, signage, routesetting, etc.) as well as risk management and accident reporting, in general (signed waivers, photos, accident reports, witness statements, inspection/maintenance checklists, etc.). In addition to the auto belay product manuals from the manufacturers that should always be followed, the Climbing Wall Association, in the United States, previously published a position paper with auto belay guidance, and ABC Walls, in the United Kingdom, has an auto belay guide with risk reduction strategies. According to the aforementioned Climbing.com article, “Garnet Moore, the executive director of the Climbing Wall Association, has been in communication with Johnston and is putting together updated risk management guidelines for the industry.”

Below are additional resources for further reading on climbing gym risk management and auto belay risk mitigation:

Climbing Gym Risk Management

Capitan software

Auto Belay Risk Mitigation

Approach