Eagle, Colo. A man whose deadly collision with another skier helped prompt a safety crackdown by Colorado resorts went on trial for manslaughter Monday, with prosecutors saying he ignored poor snow conditions as he flew down the mountain.
Nathan Hall, 21, collided with Allan Cobb after finishing his shift as a lift operator at Vail in April 1997. Cobb, 33, died a few minutes later.
Since it was spring and the last day of the season, Hall should have known the snow was heavy and wet, like "mashed potatoes," prosecutor John Clune said.
"He was bombing down the mountain," Clune said. "He was reckless. That is why Allan isn't with us."
Defense attorney Brett Heckman said the collision was an accident and his client was surprised by the snow conditions. He also asked the jury to recall popular opinion in the days before Michael Kennedy and Sonny Bono were killed in ski accidents.
"The evidence of skier safety awareness was not, unfortunately, as it is now," he said. "This has happened to anybody who skis."
Prosecutors played a tape recording of a conversation between a deputy and Hall as he was treated for an eye injury at a Vail clinic.
"I flew off this knoll," Hall says. "I was trying to get control. I tried to slow down but I was off my feet.
"I just can't believe it. I am an expert skier. I can always be in control. It was just this one time."
Cobb's fianc Christi Neville, burst into tears as she recalled hearing the collision and turning to see him lying in a fetal position in the snow as a skier in a yellow jacket flew past her.
"It was almost like a blur of yellow in the air," she said of Hall.
She kicked off her skis and hiked 15 feet up to Cobb.
"I lifted up his head and all I saw was blood," she said. "Allan was gurgling blood ... It didn't sink in, at that point, that he was really going to die."
Cobb's family sued Vail Resorts and won a settlement of an undisclosed amount. Hall is charged with reckless manslaughter, possession of alcohol by a minor and possession of marijuana. If convicted, he faces up to six years in prison.
Two courts dismissed the charges, ruling a reasonable person would not have expected skiing too fast would cause another person's death. The Colorado Supreme Court overturned those decisions.
The case is being closely watched amid growing complaints about speedy skiers and snowboarders. After Cobb's death, many Colorado resorts tightened their safety policies, threatening to strip season passes from hot-dogging skiers and snowboarders. The National Ski Areas Assn. launched a safety awareness campaign a year ago.
James Chalat, who specializes in ski law, said the trial could affect the image of ski areas that are trying to portray a safe environment.
"It will be a huge advantage for Colorado ski areas for the public to view Colorado as a state willing to enforce safe skiing policy with the full force of the law," he said. "Killing someone recklessly is not part of skiing."
The ski industry has put a priority on safety in recent years, with Vail and other resorts creating safety squads to catch speedy skiers and snowboarders. The number of deaths nationally declined from 39 in 1998-99 to 30 last year.