The German family of a 16-year-old exchange student who suffocated after falling into a tree well at the Whitefish Mountain Resort in 2010 has filed a federal lawsuit against the company’s owner, the company that arranged the student exchange and the boy’s host family.
In documents filed in U.S. District Court in Missoula, Niclas Waschle’s mother, father and brother claim that the defendants were negligent, and they want a jury to compensate them for their loss, as well as money spent on medical and other expenses.
His mother, Patricia Birkhold-Waschle, father Raimund Waschle and brother Philip Waschle are plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Named as defendants are Winter Sports Inc., which does business as the Whitefish Mountain Resort; the World Experience Teenage Student Exchange; and Fred and Lynne Vanhorn, who were the boy’s host parents.
According to the lawsuit, on Dec. 29, 2010, Niclas Waschle was skiing by himself on a groomed trail near the T-bar 2 ski lift at Whitefish Mountain Resort. He fell head first into a tree well, which is a large pocket of unpacked snow that formed around the base of a tree, near the edge of the groomed trail and close to the area where skiers dismount from the T-bar.
Waschle was found by two people who noticed his skis protruding from the snow. They pulled him free, but he was unconscious and was declared brain dead three days later at the Kalispell hospital.
His family alleges that the area in which Waschle was skiing was not restricted or blocked off in any way, nor were any warning notices posted regarding the dangers of tree wells on or adjacent to the groomed trail he was using. They claim that the tree wells near the T-bar “constitute an unnecessary and foreseeable hazard” that should have been mitigated, or at least blocked off to alleviate the danger.
“That tree wells at or in the vicinity of the trail below the T-bar 2 lift were an unnecessary hazard that could have been eliminated or alleviated by reasonable care by Defendant Winter Sports, and that the hazard was well known to Defendant Winter Sports, is demonstrated by the fact that approximately 10 days later, on or about January 8, 2011, tragedy struck again when a 29-year-old snowboarder from Kalispell, Montana died in a tree well at or near the T-bar 2 ski lift east of Big Mountain’s summit, i.e. at or near the very spot where Niclas had encountered the tree well,” the family alleges in the lawsuit.
One study has shown that the chance of surviving a non-avalanche-related snow immersion death is extremely low. In two experiments in Canada and the United States, only 10 percent of volunteers placed in tree wells could extricate themselves.
Waschle’s family claims that Winter Sports’ acts and omissions, including the design, layout, construction and creation, as well as ongoing maintenance, of the ski trail area unreasonably exposed skiers to hazards.
The family also claims that the Vanhorns should have known better than to let Waschle ski by himself that day, especially since there was blizzard-like weather and he hadn’t skied in similar conditions and terrain in Germany. They added that Fred Vanhorn was a ski instructor at the resort, and should have known of the dangers in skiing alone.
Waschle was a season-pass holder at the ski area and a student at Columbia Falls High School.
The Vanhorns couldn’t be reached for comment Tuesday. Riley Polumbus, a spokesperson for the resort, said they hadn’t seen a copy of the lawsuit so couldn’t comment on it.