The Nathan Hall skiing homocide

This case was just on Dateline. It was the first I had heard about it. 18 year Nathan Hall was involved in a ski accident which took the life of 33 year old Alan Cobb at Vail Colorado in April 97.

Here is a short summary of the case.

The DA prosecuted Hall on criminal charges of manslaughter and criminally negligent homocide. After the case was dismissed by the county and the dismissal upheld by the district court, the DA successfully petitioned the Colorado Supreme Court for a trial.

The jury was given three choices:[ul][li]Felony charges of reckless manslaughter. 3-6 year sentence.Felony charges of criminally negligent homocide. 1-3 year sentence.[/li][li]Not Guilty.[/ul]A misdemeanor conviction was not an option. This January, Hall was convicted of the lesser charge and sentenced to 90 days in jail and 240 hours of community service.[/li]
Although the sentence was light for the conviction, I am appauled at the verdict. A jury of 12 men and woman, every one a skiier, convicted an 18 year old kid of a felony for causing an accident that I wager each one of them have been capable of causing themselves at some point. A felony conviction which will have a serious impact on the future of Hall’s life.

I have been skiing for 20 years, the better part of my life. I have seen wreckless skiing in all shapes and forms. I also know that part of the thrill of skiing is to push yourself to the edge of your limits. Every skiier is susceptical of losing control on the slopes. I have lost control on more than a few occaions myself.

Skiing is an inherently dangerous sport. The back of the lift ticket is basically a contract with the resort in which the skier acknowledges the danger and assumes responsibilty of injury, up to and including death.

Part of the responsibility that a skiier assumes is the danger of other skiiers. Another part is the responsibilty to ski within their abilities.

Alan Cobb was skiing for the fourth time of his life on an intermediate slope at Vail. An intermediate slope at Vail is no joke. Often, they are equivilant to or harder than “expert” slopes of eastern resorts. I wonder if Cobb was skiing within his abilities. I wonder if a more skilled skiier would have been able to avoid a collision.

Of course, the defense never brought this up. Probably because they were confident in their case and probably because of the shitstorm of bad press it would have provoked. Still, I wonder.

There was also the matter that Hall had a beer or two prior to the accident and the fact that he was carrying beers and weed in his backpack. Dateline reported that a blood test showed Hall to be below legal BAC and not under the influence of marijuana at the time of the incident.

Does every tragedy have to have a criminal these days? I feel bad for Cobb’s fiance and family, but does that mean someone has to pay (beyond the $300k that Vail settled for)?

Hall’s lawyer has hinted at appealing the sentence (Supreme Court, I guess?) and I hope he does and wins. The conviction just seems wrong to me.

This may end up in GD, but I am really just looking for your opinions on this.

If you respond, I’d like to know whether or not you’re a skiier, too.

I support the decision. Too many wofucs on the slopes. Taking air blind on a blue is the epitome of reckless skiing.

I doubt if the decision will have any effect on skiing in general, for young males will do their thing regardless of the consequences. It’s just a great pity that some folks can’t seem to separate high risk behavior concerning oneself from high risk behavior affecting others.

I’m a retired national team skier, and practising criminal defence lawyer.

Agreed. But the matter of whether Hall was in control when he flew over was never established (from the trial footage and juror interviews I saw). I damned near killed myself a few years ago, out of control over a knoll into the edge of the woods at Heavenly. I consider myself less than expert, but not even close to reckless.

The accident happened on the last day of the season, last run of the day. Lifts closed for an hour. Conditions were rough. Hall was probably expecting sparse traffic on the way down. The Dateline footage showed witnesses testifying to how fast he was skiing, and that he was back on his skiis, clearly out of control. It did not show testimony about where he was seen so out of control.

He admits to skiing too fast and that he was at fault. Does that mistake make him guilty of homocide? Is that reasonable?

Have you ever conceived of your actions on the slope to be potentially fatal to others? If you have, you probably would agree that it isn’t something commonly taught outside of the upper levels of competition.

I don’t presume to know all of the facts. Like I said, it just seems wrong to me.

I’m curious. As an defence attorney, what do you think about the prosecution’s decision to go for broke on the felony charge?

If he was in control, launched at speed, and took out a fellow’s melon, then he was negligent. If he was out of control before launching over the knoll, then the question is why was he out of control? Was it from skiing responsibly, getting tangled up in the mush, missing a turn, and not being able to get back in control (no negligence)? Or was it from going to fast in the first place, getting trapped on his tails, and not being able to rein it back in (negligence)? He admitted he was skiing too fast. This admission cooked him. By freely choosing to ski at high speed, he became responsible for the foreseeable consequences.

I think that it is reasonable. In rough conditions, a reasonable person would slow down. In sparse traffic, a reasonable person would still take care because of the existence of traffic. Last run is a high accident time, so again caution should be taken. I don’t see it as being any different than a late night car crash where someone drove too fast on a slippery road.

Actually, yes. I only strap on the big boards and open it up all the way when the run is clear. Anything less would be negligent. I weigh about 250, so if I ever hit anyone at full speed, it would probably be game over for them. This pretty much limits me to the first hour or so in the morning unless closed runs are available. After that, I have to throttle back significantly. By peak period, I move onto steeps or into bumps simply to avoid traffic. So yes, my day is highly contingent on other people’s use of the hill, and in the front of my mind is that I must take great care not to cause them harm. I have a rather ugly looking friend who’s face was slashed off by a wofuk on space, and I was present when a child was killed by a wofuk in space, so perhaps more than most, I am aware of the repercussions of airborne collisions, but nonetheless, I don’t think it beyond any skier’s capacity to recognize that skiing into someone’s head at speed will cause serious harm or death, and flowing from that recognition, that a skier must take great care when skiing at speed.

Actually, it is not addressed at high levels of competition. We talk about safe course setting, and when practising simply block off a run or use spotters, but this is all based on common sense. Ski instructors (I am not one) cover safe skiing quite thoroughly, though, from the outset. “Ski in control” is preached widely by instructors and by the ski patrol, and most hills post the skier’s code prominently. I would agree, however, that the potential to cause death is rarely advertised. I think it should be.

I think it was a good call. The industry is geared toward older skiers with children, not young bucks, yet it is the fellows of Hall’s age that cause the most damage. It was no skin off anyone’s nose to protect the skiing public by prosecuting Hall. Family values, wholesome recreation, safe physical activity. This is what the ski resort industry is about. Yes, it puts out an adventurous facade through ski mags, movies and the like, but the people who pay the freight expect a safe, homogenized package. Have you heard the term “Ski Vail”? It’s a pejorative euphemism generally meaning that the skiing experience Vail offers is the rough equivalent of dining at McDonalds. Safe, innocuous, family oriented. Vail is designed to attract just the sort of person whom Hall killed. So there we have in the presence of witnesses the relatively older (33) Cobb, skiing on an intermediate trail with his fiancee, being taken out by a young (18) but expert skier, who knew the hill from having worked for the season as a liftee, who was heading off to ski college in hopes of racing, who admittedly was skiing to fast, and who was in possession of both alcohol and drugs. With Christie the fiancee watching, Hall skied into Cobb’s head. This cries out for prosecution, and if a prosecutor did not follow through, I expect that significant pressure would be brought to bear.

Perhaps a weak point was the admissibility of the recording the police made of Hall at the hospital. I am in a different jurisdiction (Ontario), so I cannot speak on what is normally accepted into evidence in Colorado, but offhand it seems to me that Hall’s right against self incrimination might have been violated. The way I figure it, the only reason the tape was made was because the police wanted to know what had happened. I suggest that this means that they were investigating, and since the only suspect could be Hall, I think he should have been advised of his rights first. Of course the court has obviously not taken the same path as me on this aspect, so either the decision will be tossed higher up, or I am just plain wrong. As I say, I am in a different jurisdiction with different evidentiary rules, so take my thoughts with a grain of salt.

The sentence makes sense, for it balances the seriousness of the felony conviction with Hall’s minimal level of intent and significant level of remorse. I wonder if the defence might even have been pushing for a conditional (house arrest) sentence. I realize that the sentence was well below what it might have been, but I believe it was fair given the mitigating circumstances.

I suppose it can be said that when one goes skiing, one must accept risks. Well, let’s apply that to Hall. He went skiing, took risks, and now is having to accept responsibility. He risked others by skiing out of control, and now he is facing the consequences. It’s a hard lesson. I don’t think that a person should be relieved of responsibly toward others simply by virtue of being on a ski hill, and I believe that when the result of negligent behavior is someone’s death, then a felony conviction is indicated.

I am not a skier (in fact, I have never snow-skied) but am a practicing criminal defense lawyer. I also saw that Dateline and was also appalled at the verdict. One juror even said that she would have liked to have had more evidence, which made me wonder why she voted for conviction.
It is axiomatic that we do not punish people for accidental acts. With very few exceptions, there must be intent proven in order to find guilt. Exceptions include something that involves unreasonable recklessness, which is why people can be charged with vehicular homicide if they do something stupid that causes an accident- key words being “do something stupid”, such as run a stop sign or a red light.
It is entirely possible that I don’t have any idea what I’m talking about becuse I don’t ski- however, it seems to me that to fail to give a jury the option of a misdemeanor is unfair. In my jurisdiction, there is a misdemeanor grade of vehicular homicide, and this seems to be on the same par with those types of cases.
My $0.02.

I think that this thread has interesting legal issues that would be better addresed in Great Debates.
Be seeing you.

what is the debate? he was doing an activity that resulted directly in the death of another person. Is he responcible for his actions or not? I drive too fast sometimes. If I run over somebody because I am driving too fast and lose control of my car then am I responcible?

The question I was just going to ask was asked by justinh -

The problem with the driving analogy is that there are laws against speeding, etc… whereas I am not aware of any laws regulating skiing behavior. Does this make a difference?

And as far as me being a skiier, I was skiing on the intermediate slopes at Aspen on my second time skiing. Perhaps that was foolish of me. :rolleyes:

There are absolutely laws against reckless skiing, at least in NH, VT, and CO that I know of.

<note to self: research before posting>

Sadly, the best I could find was this “code:” http://vail.snow.com/m.safety.asp

I should have been more specific about the regulations question, though - I was thinking about speeding. In this case, Hall was supposedly speeding, and either he wasn’t looking where he was going, or he was in mid-air before he realized what was about to happen and couldn’t control his movements. Are there skiing speed limits? (and where might there be a better site with more detailed regulations?)

Getting back to the OP - no, I have a hard time find Hall to be guilty of a crime other than carelessness. I’m just wondering about the consistencies with which deadly accidents are treated across the board.

I think a few definitions could help clear things up a bit. First, manslaughter:
The unlawful killing of a human being without malice or premeditation, either express or implied; distinguished from murder, which requires malicious intent.
from


**Recklessness **
Conduct that, under the circumstances, reflects complete indifference to the safety and rights of others.
http://www.lectlaw.com//def/c089.htm

Basically, the prosecution contends that Hall was behaving in a reckless manner on the slopes, causing the death of another skier.

One witness said:

I personally think that he behaved in a reckless manner and caused the death of another person, regardless of intent. Reckless Manslaughter assumes that you did not mean to kill someone, but your reckless behavior caused their death anyway. The skier claimed that he just lost control, but the prosecution contended that he was skiing with disregard for others on the slopes.

I’m inclined to compare this to an activity like driving under poor conditions. It is one thing to lose control of your car and get into an accident on icy roads. It is entirely different to be travelling way too fast for conditions, lose control of the car, and kill someone.

A jury convicted him, which means that they believed he was acting in a reckless manner at the time of the accident, without meaning to kill anyone. Unfortunately for him, that still equals a Reckless Manslaughter conviction.

Zette

When dealing with criminal behavior, intent is an important consideration. But it is not the only consideration.

Clearly Natahn Hall did not intend to cause anyone’s death. But, just as clearly to me, he did intend to ski in a manner that it was definately possible that he’d have an accident. He assumed a certain amount of risk. With that assumption of risk comes the assumption of responsability should things go awry.

There’s quite a bit of precedent for this sort of thing tho (not in skiing). Hunters who accidentally shoot a person instead of a deer are criminally prosecuted for example.
No, I don’t ski.

I occasionally appear as a Crown. I can see why the prosecution opted for felony only - the complaint here wasn’t bad skiing per se; it was causing death by bad skiing. Normally, if a death is involved, I think most prosecutors would approach it by way of a felony/indictable matter.

No, it doesn’t. One of the hardest things a Crown/police officer may have to do is explain to the family of a deceased person that even though their loved one died, no-one is criminally responsible - that it was just an accident.

However, in this case, on the facts given, I can see why the prosecutor would proceed with a charge, for the reasons given by muffin.

Even if there are no statutes enacted specifically regulating skiing, there are the common law principles of tort, including assault and negligence causing injury. In any activity, there is a reasonable standard of care that must be maintained. For risky behaviour such as skiing, the standard of care will recognize the inherent risks, but there is nonetheless law governing the skier’s conduct.

Breach of civil standards of care is not automatically a breach of the criminal law. But if I were the prosecutor, in assessing whether the conduct was so reckles as to warrant a criminal prosecution, one of the things I would consider is how far the conduct deviated from the normal standard of care, as established by civil cases. A gross deviation from the standard of care would be a factor pointing to the degree of recklessness necessary to support a conviction for reckless conduct causing death.

The driving analogy is actually a decent one. In most driving accidents involving fatalities or serious injuries the responsible party is not charged with a crime (though he or she may be sued civilly for damages because of his or her neglegent conduct). Similarly, in most skiing accidents there are no criminal charges.

To convict someone of a crime (with the limited exception of a very narrow band of crimes known as strict liability crimes) the prosecution must prove that the accused had a specific culpable mental state (the legal term is mens rea). New York defines four culpable mental states in Penal Law sec. 15.05: Intentionally, Knowingly, Recklessly, and Criminal Negligence. Similar concepts of mens rea and definitions are in the criminal laws of each U.S. state and other jurisdiction with laws derived from the English common law.

Under New York law, and the law of other states, there are a number “levels” of homicide (defined as “conduct which causes the death of a person”) depending on the mental state of the person causing the death. All definitions of homicide crimes are taken from article 125 of the New York Penal Law, which is fairly typical of state homicide laws.

The three main levels of homicide are murder, manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide (New York, like most other states, further subdivides the crimes into different degrees and categories, like murder in the second degree and vehicular manslaughter, but let’s put those aside).

The most usual cases of homicide are “intentional” (or “voluntary”) killings. An “intentional” act is defined as where a person’s “conscious objective is to cause such result or to engage in such conduct.” PL 15.05. “Intentional” murder is when a person: “With intent to cause the death of another person, he causes the death of such person or of a third person” PL 125.25(1). Similarly, “intentional” manslaughter is when a person: “With intent to cause serious physical injury to another person, he causes the death of such person or of a third person.” PL 125.20(1).

The cases of homicide involving a ski or auto accident is a case of an “involuntary” homicide, where the accused killed someone without intending to cause death or serious physical injury. The level of the crime (if any) is dependent on the mental state of the accused. The accused will be criminally liable in accordance with the following mental states (emphasis added):

Criminally Negligent Homicide: “with criminal negligence, he causes the death of another person.” PL 125.10

Manslaughter: “recklessly causes the death of another person.” PL 125.15(1)

Murder: “Under circumstances evincing a depraved indifference to human life, he recklessly engages in conduct which creates a grave risk of death to another person, and thereby causes the death of another person.” PL 125.25(2)

What these mean goes back to the definitions of mental states:

“Depraved indifference” murder occurs when the accused acts recklessly and such recklessness is so great it is considered to be “depraved indifference to human life.” This category classifies as murder actions that are so dangerous that even if the accused didn’t really intend to kill anybody the risk was so high that it is tantamount to an intentional killing. An example of what could be considered a “depraved indifference” murder is the case of David Edward Attias, who is accused of murder for allegedly killing several pedestrians in Santa Barbara, California by driving his car into them at a high rate of speed. Even if Mr. Attias credibly claims that he did not intend to kill his victims, he might be convicted of murder because driving a car toward pedestrians while speeding could be considered to be acting with “a depraved indifference to human life.” Likewise, speed skiing into a group of stationary people might be considered to be “depraved indifference.”

“Reckless” or “involuntary” manslaughter is causing death while acting “recklessly.” The Colorado Supreme Court decision which authorized the prosecution of Mr. Hall for manslaughter gives a very clear and detailed description of why the conduct he was accused of could be considered "reckless manslaughter (Parts III.B & IV.B. of the decision) under Colorado law (which is similar to New York’s). The court found that there are four elements to reckless manslaughter:

The court held that speed skiing in the out-of-control manner that Mr. Hall was accused of could be found by a jury to be a “substantial and unjustifiable risk.” It also held that as a experienced ski racer and resort employee, he could be found to have known of and “consciously disregarded” that risk. Finally, the court held that jury could find that he “caused the death” he was accused of because of the “substantial and unjustifiable risk that he consciously disregarded.” Accordingly, the court allowed Mr. Hall to stand trial for “reckless” manslaughter.

Ultimately, the jury didn’t find that Mr. Hall met the elements of recklessness and acquitted of him of that charge. But, they found that he met the elements of “criminal negligence” and convicted him of criminally negligent homicide. A person may be found guilty of such a crime if he causes the death of another where “he fails to perceive a substantial and unjustifiable risk [of causing a such a death]. The risk must be of such nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.” PL 15.05(4).

As mentioned above, a jury could quite reasonably find that Mr. Hall’s out-of-control speed skiing caused a “substantial and unjustifiable risk” of death, which caused the death of his victim. Even if Mr. Hall didn’t think his conduct was substantially and unjustifiably risky, he was found to have “fail[ed] to perceive” such a risk, and thus be liable for criminally negligent homicide.

The difference between criminal negligence and ordinary negligence (for which you may be held civilly liable for damages but not prosecuted) is that in criminal negligence you must have “a substantial and unjustifiable risk” and “[t]he risk must be of such nature and degree that the failure to perceive it constitutes a gross deviation from the standard of care that a reasonable person would observe in the situation.”

In this case, the idea that Mr. Hall was reckless (consciously disregarding a substantial and unjustifiable risk) or criminally negligent (unknowingly disregarding a substantial and unjustifiable risk) does not seem that surprising. In the decision the Court makes a clear distinction to a skier who, because of terrain conditions, inexperience, or other causes, involuntarily goes out of control and injures or kills someone. That’s part of the risk of skiing. However, when an experienced skier acts with gross disregard of the rules of safe skiing and thereby causes injury or death, he may be liable for homicide.

http://touchngo.com/lglcntr/akstats/Statutes/Title05/Chapter45/Section090.htm

http://www.co.utah.ut.us/omninet/resource/CNTYCODE/CHAP4.HTM

Some links, the last one is pretty good.

Thanks to Zette, wring, jti and especially Billdo for the definitions, explanations and sites! And to Telemark - those are very good links, and I have no idea why they didn’t come up in my google search…

I can’t think of anything to say about this case - I wish I could :slight_smile: I do like Zette’s analogy to driving under poor conditions though. That makes more sense than a regular driving analogy.

Thanks again…