Stella Case No. 092, Originally Published: 27 July 2005
In January 2003, Sarah Walker, 23, a ski instructor, was out on Loon Mountain in Lincoln, N.H. It was a cold day, and few people were on the slopes. She had an “expert” run virtually to herself.
She was racing down the hill practicing jumps when suddenly she saw someone ahead of her. “All I saw was somebody darting in front of me,” Walker said. She was unable to avoid a collision with Megan Lowry, 14, who was apparently skiing across the slope to reach a less expert-level run.
Walker was injured in the crash: her front teeth were knocked out — through her lip — and she fractured her knee cap.
Off-season, Walker was an aspiring model. But her facial injury, the limp from her knee injury, and the inability to wear high heels, she says, ruined her modeling career and left her with “low self-esteem.” “I just don’t look the same,” she sobbed in court.
To help boost her esteem she filed a federal lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Boston against the 14-year-old girl and her parents, Daniel and Nancy Lowry, claiming negligence. She sought loss of wages for her aborted modeling career and compensation for her injuries. The suit says the girl should have seen Walker coming and yielded to her.
In response to the suit, the Lowrys said Walker was skiing too fast for conditions, and was unable to avoid the collision because she was in the middle of a jump — airborne — and thus out of control.
Megan Lowry, meanwhile, was knocked unconscious in the collision and can’t remember what happened. But, she testified, she’s an advanced skier and does look uphill before crossing a slope.
Her brother, Christopher, 12 at the time, was a witness to the accident. He says he was snowboarding behind his sister and was also about to cross, but by the time he looked Walker was visible — and was airborne. “She was going really fast,” he testified, and “then she landed and she crashed into my sister.” Walker says she was not airborne before the collision.
The bottom line, says Walker’s lawyer, Evan Slavitt, is “The responsibility was on Megan [Lowry] to avoid the collision.” No, responded the Lowry’s lawyer, Lawrence J. Kenney Jr. “The first rule for skiers is to maintain control. Sarah Walker … chose to go airborne and lost control,” and she is responsible for what happened.
There’s the case. How would YOU rule, as a juror in the Court of Public Opinion? You can assign all of the blame to either side, or assign blame on a percentage basis to both sides.
Before the case went to the jury, Judge Robert Collings dismissed Lowry’s parents from the suit on the grounds that they were in fact on the slopes and were supervising their children. The jury thus only considered blame on Walker, the downhill racer, and Lowry, the 14-year-old girl who was crossing the slope.
After just two hours of deliberations, the jury held that Walker was 95 percent at fault, and Lowry only five percent. Further, it specifically awarded no damages to Walker. Jury foreman John Sheehan said he was surprised that Walker made a federal case out of the accident she had caused. “I think it was a matter of wrong place, wrong time,” he said.
The verdict “confirms what we knew all along,” said Lowry’s father, Daniel. Walker “was skiing recklessly that day. As much as you feel sorry for her injuries, they are of her own doing.”
Walker still didn’t get the message that the person racing downhill is responsible for avoiding collisions — a rule she should well know as a ski instructor. “I don’t think it was fair,” she said of the verdict.
No doubt young Megan said the same thing when she was sued over something that was not her fault. Her parents probably also felt that way when they were forced to hire a lawyer to defend their family from ruin.
Total time from incident to being tossed out of court: almost two and a half years.
- “After Crash on Slope, Skiers Now Vie in Court”, Boston Globe, 29 June 2005.
- “Ski Crash Model’s Own Fault, Jury Finds”, Boston Globe, 30 June 2005.
Concluded with no reward given, as noted.
My 2021 Thoughts on the Case
Seems to me that Walker figured she could just let go because she was “virtually” by herself on the mountain. Unfortunately, that does not mean completely by herself.
Mr. Lowry said it best: “As much as you feel sorry for her injuries, they are of her own doing.” The same can’t be said of his daughter, who was injured but did not sue.
The case of the mother who bought several classic sugary breakfast cereals for her kids because the label said they had “less” sugar, but then sued when she learned that the sugar was replaced by other carbohydrates, brought some disagreement.
Bran in New York: “I agree with you that the plaintiff should have compared the [labels] herself. However, I was in a grocery store and saw a large pyramid of cereal boxes emblazoned ‘1/3 Less Sugar!’ and it was extremely obvious to me that the packaging was intended to deceive consumers into thinking this product was ‘better’. I’m sure they know perfectly well that few people read the nutrition labels, and even fewer of those that do understand what they’re reading. I consider myself reasonably smart, but I couldn’t find any difference in the two products, even though I was specifically looking for what it might be! I’m sure, in court, the cereal companies have fulfilled the letter of the law. But I’m glad this plaintiff has taken it upon herself to point out a misleading advertising practice.”
Bob in New Jersey: “I’ve got to disagree with you on this case. I find it akin to the tobacco companies reducing the tar and nicotine in cigarettes. The companies now must print a warning on their ads saying that they are no safer than regular ones. My granddaughter becomes hyperactive after consuming sugar. I buy her cereal with no or very little sugar. I might have bought one of the reduced sugar cereals if I hadn’t read of this case. You’re saying it’s the responsibility of the consumer to become a nutritional expert to be able to see through the advertising hype. I believe the outcome of this lawsuit should be to force the companies to state on their packages and in ads in a type size as large and as readable as the phrase ‘reduced sugar’, that there is no nutritional benefit from that. As for monetary damages, those should only cover the cost of legal expenses.”
One doesn’t have to be a nutritional expert to understand the labels, which are mandated to be in a particular format by the government — presumably so they can be reasonably easy to understand. Still, the next comment went even further.
Carey in Illinois: “While it does seem foolish to some extent, the sad fact is that far too many Americans are not savvy enough to read and understand ingredient labels and will be buying the cereal thinking it is more healthy, and the manufacturers know that darn well and are using the ignorance of the American people to make a few more bucks to pay bonuses to management and buy more corporate jets. Clearly you must be being paid off by the manufacturers to make fun of her. I may cancel my subscription, I certainly will if you ever do anything so poor as this again.”
Carey may have a point about Americans’ reasoning ability: look at his own thinking process. I “clearly” created the True Stella Awards and ran nearly a hundred cases that had nothing to do with cereal, and even went so far as to write a book about frivolous lawsuits (which again doesn’t mention cereals) with the sole purpose of gaining everyone’s trust so I could do one case about cereal so I could be be “paid off” by their manufacturers, despite the fact that such collusion would be a felony? Riiiiiight. The about page clearly asserts my independence. That no one can influence my coverage demonstrates that independence.
Despite those mostly rational arguments, there were far more on the other side.
James in California: “I think the woman should have been imprisoned for negligence in not taking the time to look at the trash she was feeding her children. Heavily sugared crap with a bit of sugar taken out is still crap. It’s like the guy suing because he ‘didn’t know’ that a steady diet of fast food would make him fat. All of us have a responsibility for our well being. In this modern world part of that involves reading labels and knowing relative health benefits. It’s not really complex, you can learn it in an afternoon and almost every college or university offers free nutrition seminars.”
Pat in Ontario, Canada: “If she really wants her kids to have nutritious meals, why doesn’t she get her lazy butt out of bed a half hour early and MAKE them breakfast? I don’t mean pour it out of a box, I mean cut up fruit, toast bread, scramble some eggs — you know, PREPARE and COOK real food. This woman, and most of North America, is terminally lazy — and it is becoming terminal in a very real sense since we are killing ourselves with chemicals and cholesterol.”
And sugar and other carbs!
Mary in Alabama: “What type of ignoramus would actually think that ‘less sugar’ = ‘healthy’? She should get off her arse and cook. Scrambled egg with buttered white toast would be better than pre-manufactured ANYTHING!”
Mark, in the same state as the plantiff: “As a consumer in the state of California that has bought cereal for my 11-year-old daughter, I hereby remove my name from any claims or lawsuit made on my behalf by Jennifer Hardee of San Diego. I fully accept responsibility for my laziness in supplying my daughter with a quick and easy breakfast that I as a half-intelligent adult fully know is not nutritious in any since of the word. As her parent, I am fully responsible for her well being and health. I do not blame Kraft foods, Kellogg or General Mills in any way for my poor choices in nutrition. I get furious when I read about lawsuits like this one. What scares and concerns me the most is the message and example this gives our children: that you no longer have to be responsible for your own actions.”
Andy in Massachusetts: “To me, the worst part of all these cases
aren’t the Jennifer Hardees of the world, it’s the lawyers who take these cases on. They’re like parents who give in to their child’s every whim. I don’t condone Ms. Hardee’s apparent laziness and greed, but I can’t believe she found a lawyer willing to take this case. I wonder how many she called.”
Jean, a lawyer in Quebec, Canada: “A similar case is in court right now in the province of Quebec. I believe a lady from Montreal is seeking from the Superior Court of Quebec permission to introduce a class action suit against Kellogg’s for Canadian customers, based on the U.S. case information.”
Gee: it doesn’t look like any of these letter writers works for a cereal company.
Referring to an earlier case about a fraternity member who sued his frat after becoming paralyzed when he jumped into a shallow wading pool, reader Paul in California wrote that the “more important lesson of this story: the U.S. lacks a decent system for providing medical and support services to the sick and injured. … It is a case of our stupid system working as it does to provide lifelong care for a teenager who was unlucky enough not survive the stupid escapades of his teenage years.” (For the record, the man was 18 at the time of his accident — a young but legal adult.) Several readers were upset with Paul’s idea.
Glenn in Alabama: “This line of thinking (entitlement) is the very problem TSA is fighting against. Paul feels I should pay (in taxes, so my government can help out) when someone else does something [which he admits is] ‘stupid’. At some point, we must take responsibility for our own actions. Paul joined a mailing list that points out the ludicrous lawsuits (almost all of which are motivated by greed and refusal to take ownership of one’s own actions), but provides a different solution: instead of suing, let the government pay (sounds like socialism to me). Augh!”
Jon in Washington: “Who is this socialist, and how did he become an economics professor in the United States? The collective population of the United States, in the form of a government handout, should be caring and providing for someone whose own actions land them in trouble? Whatever happened to personal responsibility? Whatever happened to being accountable for one’s own actions? This is why we have families and charities. That the frat boy doesn’t have the resources to care for himself after his own moronic actions left him paralyzed is neither my problem nor my neighbor’s problem, and I will challenge any efforts by anyone to take resources from me and my family in order to care for idiots. Perhaps Paul should be reading less Karl Marx and more Adam Smith.”
I see Paul’s letter as discussing the poor medical care situation in the U.S., which is absolutely true: it is quite bad in that we have the highest costs for medical care per capita of any rich country, and the worst outcomes. What I don’t see is him demanding, or even requesting, a socialist solution.
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