News for the Hospitality Executive
|By Jason Blevins, The Denver Post
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Dec. 5, 2003 - CHEYENNE, Wyo.-- On Aug. 1, 2001, Dr. David Randall Williams and his wife, Joette, slipped into their bed in room 327 at the Snake River Lodge & Spa in Teton Village, Wyo., near the Jackson Hole ski area.
David Williams, 51, would never wake up. Joette, now 53, would never be the same, her brain damaged. His death and her injuries were caused by carbon monoxide in the room.
In a civil trial that began last month, Joette Williams and her late husband's family are seeking millions of dollars from the hotel's majority owner, Vail Resorts. The Williams are seeking as much as $22 million in actual damages, including up to $9.4 million in lost earnings by her husband and $12 million in projected lifetime medical expenses for her care. The plaintiffs also are asking for millions more in punitive damages.
Williams claims that the Avon-based resort company was aware of a carbon monoxide problem with the boiler beneath their room. Vail says it knew the boiler was not functioning properly but was unaware it was dangerous.
Vail Resorts' insurance policy covers actual damages, but not punitive damages, according to an annual report filed with the government last month.
"Along with our attorneys, we believe that finding punitive damages is not warranted. However, we have no way of knowing what a jury may decide," Vail chief executive Adam Aron told analysts in a conference call Nov. 13, five days before the trial began.
"While we are not counting on an outcome of punitive damages, if so, it could affect us dramatically in '04." Vail Resorts is already coming off a fiscal year, ended July 31, in which it lost $8.5 million.
Vail Resorts acquired 51 percent of the slopeside lodge in December 2000, one month after the Mighty Max boiler was installed by the previous owner. Vail launched a renovation several months later. Contractors rewired a safety valve on the first-floor gas boiler to address hot-water problems.
The valve was designed to shut off the boiler when it was not burning efficiently or when carbon-monoxide levels climbed. A new valve was never installed.
"The ball got dropped" in replacing the safety switch, Vail Resorts attorney Earl Gunn said in his opening statements. But "it wasn't a situation where management made a decision (that) it's better to pump carbon monoxide out and endanger guests than it is to have them complaining of cold water.' "
Gunn's point is important because in order to win punitive damages, Williams' attorneys would have to prove that Vail acted maliciously and recklessly in allowing the carbon monoxide leak. The carbon monoxide vented outside the building and was apparently sucked into the Williams' room through its air-conditioning unit.
"This is a case ultimately, and as the evidence will show, of trying to duck fundamental safety responsibility, of finger-pointing at others, of objecting rather than accepting responsibility," said Bob Schuster, the Jackson, Wyo.-based attorney representing the Williamses, in his opening statements Nov. 18.
Joette Williams, who lives in North Carolina, is attending the trial in Cheyenne. While listening to testimony last month, Williams appeared to shake -- a result of her brain damage, her attorneys say.
After the carbon monoxide poisoning, Joette Williams remained in a coma for two days, and she has a host of physical impairments, according to her attorneys.
Vail worked with the Williamses earlier this year to settle their claims. Those negotiations were "unsuccessful," Schuster said. The company's motion for summary judgment on the issue of punitive damages was previously dismissed by Judge Alan Johnson.
Jack Hunn, vice president of development for Vail Resorts Development Co., testified last month that despite a warning that the boiler's proximity to laundry facilities was a building code violation, Vail Resorts was never made aware of any problems with the boiler.
Dr. John Hoffman, an accident reconstruction specialist and occupational safety consultant testifying for Williams, told the jury his team measured carbon monoxide levels of 70,000 parts per million, or 7 percent carbon monoxide, at the boiler's exhaust fan beneath room 327 on Aug. 28, 2001. After the Aug. 1 accident, the hotel was evacuated and cordoned off by police as a crime scene for three weeks.
"I have never seen anything close to that in an actual carbon- monoxide exhaust case," Hoffman testified. "Somebody should have looked at this in a serious way and found out what the problems were. If they'd have done that, we would not have had an accident."
Vail's attorneys argue that the damage to Joette Williams may not be permanent. They plan to call to the stand doctors who have studied Williams, and those doctors are ready to testify that damage to her brain may not be permanent and her ailments may have a psychological component.
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