A Saugus woman left with one leg by an industrial snow grooming machine during a day of snowboarding seven years ago has taken her legal fight against the ski resort operators to the California Supreme Court.
Kathy Willhide-Michiulis, a 51-year-old mother of one, and her lawyer, Jae Y. Lee, filed court papers Wednesday with the state’s top court, in a bid to hold the Mammoth Mountain ski resort accountable for her life-altering injury.
“Hopefully, my suit will have an impact on other people,” she said Wednesday.
“I would hate to see this happen to someone else,” she said. “We’ve got to change how they (ski resorts) operate.”
Willhide-Michiulis and Lee initially filed a lawsuit against the Mammoth Mountain Ski Area LLC in 2013 after a snow-tilling machine that uses a rotating cutter bar to dice snow ran over her.
Allegation of gross negligence
In January 2016, a trial court judge in Mammoth Lakes, near the resort, ruled the resort wasn’t grossly negligent and that what happened to Willhide-Michiulis was an inherent risk of snowboarding.
Because she and her husband had signed assumption-of-risk releases promising not to sue the resort for negligence, the court also ruled the plaintiffs had to prove “gross negligence.”
It also ordered her to pay for the ski resort’s legal costs.
Willhide-Michiulis and Lee then appealed the decision only to receive a judgement from the 3rd District Court of Appeal siding with the Mono County judge.
At issue is whether the ski resort’s actions amounted to “gross negligence sufficient to vitiate a signed release” or, in other words, sufficient gross negligence to void the liability waiver.
After seven frustrating years, she and her legal team continue to allege gross negligence that they say trumps the waiver. They hope the California Supreme Court will reverse the previous judgment.
When asked for a response, attorney John E. Fagan of the Truckee law firm Duane Morris LLP, which is representing the ski resort, said via email that he is on vacation and would be available for comment on Monday.
If the California Supreme Court rules in favor of Willhide-Michiulis and holds the resort accountable for her injury, it could set a precedent on how liability waivers are administered and honored in the future.
“If we receive a favorable ruling, then when we (public) sign a waiver and get injured, they (lawyers) will be able to cite her case,” Lee said.
Meanwhile, Willhide-Michiulis struggles daily with constant pain, leaving her with few days she does not reflect on what happened March 25, 2011.
“I was going up for a day of snowboarding with my family,” she said Wednesday. “Towards the end of the day, I was coming down a run when a Snowcat turns in front of me and cuts me off and it runs me over.”
The tilling machine dragged her underneath it, pinning her between the back of the Snowcat and the tiller — its hundreds of sharp knife-like blades whirling, according to her legal team, at over 1,200 revolutions per minute.
She suffered brain damage, facial bone fractures and lacerations, serious fractures of her right leg and hip, and amputation of her left leg above the knee, according to Lee, noting his client was also shredded by the tiller.
Also revealed the day of the incident was an inner strength and fortitude in Willhide-Michiulis that few had seen previously.
The day she woke up in the hospital after the incident, she saw family members standing around her bed, Lee said.
“They’re all crying and sad for her,” he said. “And, then to alleviate their pain, she tells them: ‘Now, if I go for a pedicure, I’ll get a 50 percent discount.’”
Willhide-Michiulis, who underwent extensive physical therapy, began to focus less on herself and more on others.
She began tutoring homeless kids, showing them how someone can overcome hardship.
Two years ago, she returned to the same job, at same packaging company in the SCV, that she had before the incident. She says working, helping others and playing with her two tiny dogs has kept her on the road to recovery and focused on a brighter future.