Heavenly agrees to a number of safety-related changes after 2009 chairlift death

After a honeymoon hike in Heavenly Valley, Mark and Rebecca Dickson were riding the chairlift down the hill, laughing and talking about their lunch plans, when the newlyweds saw a blue rope flutter ahead of them in the stiff afternoon.

“And then I heard my husband say, ‘This is not good,’” Rebecca Dickson recalled in an interview Tuesday.

The rope had broken off from Lake Tahoe’s Heavenly Flyer ZipRider line that ran parallel to the lift about 100 yards away. The fluttering rope wrapped around the couple’s chair, which swung back and forth so violently in the entanglement that Mark Dickson, who was 51, fell out of his seat and to his death in the rocks about 40 feet below.

Rebecca Dickson and Mark Dickson’s two sons from a previous marriage sued, and in September they settled the wrongful death case in El Dorado Superior Court.

A confidentiality agreement has kept the financial terms of the settlement under wraps. The plaintiffs had asked for $15 million in a settlement conference in June, according to documents they filed ahead of a court hearing.

But, while the payout has been kept secret, the settlement does allow the Dicksons’ attorneys to reveal a list of Heavenly’s acknowledgments about the facts surrounding the Aug. 31, 2009, accident.

Under terms of the deal, Heavenly’s owners agreed to make a number of safety-related changes, including ones that call for strengthened drug and alcohol testing of the people who run the Heavenly Flyer, regular equipment inspections and shutting down the ride in high winds.

“We demanded to be able to make these conditions public, and hopefully with that recognition, and with the good people at Heavenly Valley being aware of it, this kind of thing isn’t going to happen again,” said plaintiff’s lawyer Robert Buccola of Sacramento.

The accident took place in the Adventure Peak area of Heavenly Valley, which is owned by Vail Resorts of Broomfield, Colo., a company that reported $1.12 billion in revenue and $37.6 million in net income in its most recent annual report.

Pete Sonntag, vice president and chief operating officer of Heavenly, said in a statement, “We are pleased that we were able to settle this litigation three months ago and hope that the resolution brought the family some closure. Guest safety remains a top priority for Heavenly. For the past three years, we have been working on a redesign of the zip line and the procedures for operating it to ensure the safest possible experience for our guests."

According to the Dicksons’ suit, the 6,200-foot rope that returned harnesses to top of the zip line after each 3,000-foot ride had not been inspected properly to guard against normal wear and tear. In addition, the plaintiffs’ lawyers argued in court papers that the Heavenly Flyer should have been taken out of operation amid wind gusts that exceeded 30 miles per hour.

When the Dicksons approached the chairlift the day of their hike, the ride was unattended because the employee who ran it from the top was over at the zip line trying to deal with the broken rope. The suit also charged that marijuana use was “chronic” among Heavenly employees.

In arguing for punitive damages, attorneys for the Dickson’s alleged in court papers that Heavenly officials engaged in “a pattern and practice of consciously disregarding the safety of others.” The company also deliberately refused to inspect the retrieval rope that broke off and declined to properly staff the amusement rides. After the accident, Heavenly tampered with the evidence and continued to do so long after the wrongful death lawsuit was filed, the plaintiffs charged.

Heavenly’s attorneys asked for a summary judgment to throw out the punitive damages claims, but the request was rejected July 30 by El Dorado Superior Court Judge Steven C. Bailey. The judge found that in weighing the disputed evidence, “a reasonable jury could infer a conscious disregard for Plaintiffs’ safety based upon Heavenly’s conduct.”

Within weeks of Bailey’s ruling, Heavenly settled the case, and signed off on the key factual findings as alleged by the Dicksons, although the company maintained that none of them were “in any way responsible” for the fatal accident.

In the settlement, Heavenly acknowledged that the resort operated the zip line despite warnings of excessive wind, and that it did not inspect the rope on the Flyer’s “equipment retrieval system” on a daily basis in search of defects. The rope was in “an excessively worn condition” the day of the accident, the company acknowledged, and that employees did not properly document the rope’s tension.

In addition, the company agreed that it didn’t properly maintain some paperwork on employee training, didn’t maintain a relief operator and didn’t drug test the employees who were working on the Flyer and the chairlift under its then-existing policies.

Heavenly changed its operations to increase staffing and oversight of the ZipRider, and it redesigned the rope retrieval system. It agreed to annually inspect the line’s component parts, to shut down the ride in high winds and to equip it with a wind detector.

The company also approved new policies that require drug screening and testing in cases of serious or fatal injuries or “on reasonable suspicion, regardless of incident.”

Rebecca Dickson, who lives in the Los Angeles County foothill town on Monrovia, said that none of the changes “will bring my husband back.”

“But if something good can come out of something bad, with all the safety features, that would mean something to me,” she said. “At least my husband’s death was not in vain.”