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Ski Bummer : Reckless Act Sends Lawyer on a Crusade for Improved Safety

Times Staff Writer

It was just past 11 a.m. on Day 5 of the Wittmans’ Colorado ski vacation, and the Poway family was in fine spirits. Avid, experienced skiers, Steve and Sandy Wittman and their sons, Scott and Russell, were poised high on the slopes of Steamboat Springs, debating which hill to tackle next, when it happened.

“Suddenly, out of the corner of my eye, I saw this object coming at us at about 50 m.p.h.--airborne, like a bat out of hell,” recalled Steve Wittman, a lawyer once active in San Diego politics. “I yelled, ‘Russell! Watch out!’ But it was too late.”

‘A Terrible Thud’

A split-second later, 38-year-old skier Terrence Coghlan plowed into young Russell, landing on the boy’s right leg, just above the boot. There was a terrible thud, a horrifying scrape of metal. The major bones in Russell’s leg were shattered, and Coghlan’s pole punctured the limb, leaving a deep gash requiring 12 stitches.

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The family’s horrifying Feb. 24 ordeal has sparked a surprising flurry of events that Steve Wittman, for one, hopes will reduce the risk of such tragedies to skiing enthusiasts throughout the West.

On Tuesday, the district attorney in Grand County, Colo., filed felony charges against Coghlan in connection with the mountain collision. That case and a second one brought this week after the death of an Iowa girl at another Colorado resort are believed to be the first of their kind.

Two Colorado state lawmakers, meanwhile, have tentatively pledged to sponsor legislation requiring ski resorts to report serious-injury accidents on their slopes to law-enforcement authorities, who would decide whether to press charges.

And associations representing Steamboat Springs-area deputy sheriffs and district attorneys--who have long been irked that reckless skiers are rarely held accountable for their actions--plan to push for legislation to tighten skier safety laws.

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At the eye of this storm is Wittman, an energetic, 42-year-old business and tax lawyer. A former San Diego City Council aide who lost an election against Mike Gotch in 1979, Wittman acknowledges being “something of a crusader” on the issue.

“It’s my first real cause,” he said.

The obvious impetus was his son’s injuries: “It’s the kind of experience that’s devastating for any parent,” Wittman said in an interview Wednesday. “We all thought my son was killed, frankly.”

The family’s shock deepened when they learned that 11-year-old Kari Meylor had been struck and killed by another skier at Winter Park, Colo., a resort near Steamboat Springs. Prosecutors have filed felony manslaughter charges in that case, and Wittman said news of the death strengthened his resolve to rein in irresponsible skiers.

But Wittman said he was also spurred by the countless “war stories” he heard from others who had either been struck or experienced close calls.

“Everyone from the pharmacist who gave us pain pills for Russell to taxi drivers and doctors said they had been through something like this,” Wittman said. “I really started to wonder why something hadn’t been done to protect people from these crazies.”

Wittman soon concluded that, despite signs on ski slopes warning that reckless skiing will result in confiscation of a lift ticket, resort operators do very little to prevent accidents. Though surveys by ski associations show a decline in injuries on the slopes, Wittman believes the danger has grown as crowds have increased. Resort operators, he argues, have failed to respond.

“The fact is there are guys like this Coghlan character causing problems all over the slopes, but if anybody reports anything, it ends up in a file and the police never find out about it,” Wittman said.

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Letters Sent to Key People

Concerned about their image, “resorts discourage reporting of any accidents and try to convince people everything’s beautiful and blissful on the mountain,” he said. “They figure those people who get hurt will just go . . . home and lick their wounds.”

Wittman was not about to do that. After returning to Poway, he began firing off letters to resorts, legislators and consumer groups, demanding that something be done. Once Coghlan’s criminal case is settled--he faces a stiff prison term if convicted of felony charges of second-degree assault and child abuse and a misdemeanor charge of reckless endangerment--Wittman plans to file a civil lawsuit against him.

“I figure I owe it to my son,” said Wittman, noting that Coghlan, a Steamboat Springs resident, has “shown no remorse and has never apologized to my son.”

Russell, meanwhile, hopes to return to third grade at Painted Rock Elementary School in Poway next week, but he still suffers nightmares and frequent pain. He may need surgery to repair his leg.

As for skiing, the boy is not exactly pining for powder.

“He’s a great skier, but right now he’s very frightened, and he doesn’t understand how he could have been hit while just standing there,” said Wittman, who spends several weeks each winter on the slopes.

“After this, I know I’m going to look uphill a lot more than I used to.”

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Times Staff Writer Tamara Jones in Denver contributed to this story.


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