Supreme court ruling favouring ski buddy system good for area heli tour operators 

British tourist found not responsible for ski companion's death in precedent-setting case

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A landmark B.C. Supreme Court decision last week ruling that skiers aren't responsible for the death of "ski buddies" on backcountry tours was welcome news to Whistler's largest heli-skiing operator.

"(The ruling) was a relief and it seemed like the right decision," said Whistler Heli-Skiing's general manager Mike Sadan. "At the end of the day people want to help each other, that's their instinct and it's something we encourage."

The ruling arose out of a court case that saw Colorado's Elizabeth Kennedy file a lawsuit after her husband Mark died from falling into a tree well on a heli-skiing trip near Blue River, B.C. in January 2009.

Kennedy claimed that British tourist Adrian Coe, who had been assigned as her husband's ski buddy prior to the accident, was responsible for the death because he didn't stay close enough to his partner and ultimately delayed rescue efforts.

In a precedent-setting decision, Justice Barbara Fisher dismissed the widow's claims, enshrining the ski buddy system for backcountry users across the country.

In her ruling, Justice Fisher wrote that, "Mr. Kennedy met a tragic and untimely death, but he did so after a terrible accident while participating in a high-risk sport and responsibility for his death cannot be placed on Mr. Coe."

Fisher wrote that placing liability on Coe could have set a dangerous precedent for backcountry skiers, and would potentially discourage them from assisting in future rescue efforts for fear of legal repercussions.

Furthermore, since Kennedy paid for the heli tour, signed a contract waiving liability and was aware of the flexibility of the ski buddy system based on the terrain, Coe could not be found liable, according to the judge.

Guides at Whistler Heli-Skiing, which has a 432,000-acre tenure with 475 runs, brief each client thoroughly on companion rescue, Sadan said, as well as on avalanche and tree-well rescue strategies.

Packs, shovels and radios, which clients have access to, are carried by guides and, said Sadan, generally heli skiers want to assist their riding partners in any way possible and have no fear of possible legal repercussions during rescues.

If the judge had found that Coe was responsible for Kennedy's death, Pemberton Search and Rescue manager Dave Steers said it would have had an impact on heli-ski operations and could have eroded safety measures already in place.

"If you thought when you were going heli-skiing that you were entirely responsible for the well-being of somebody you didn't know, that might discourage you from actually participating in the activity," he said.

Steers said it's essential that heli skiers listen to their guide at all times, and he recommended riding with a companion on backcountry heli-tours in case a guide loses track of client.

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