When approximately 3% of Mono County’s population is summoned for jury duty for a local trial, you know it’s a big deal.
The civil court trial against Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, LLC and Michael Colbert, manager of MMSA’s subsidiary Mammoth Snowmobile Adventures, began this week at the Mono County Superior courthouse in Mammoth Lakes. Opening statements were heard Thursday afternoon.
Orit and Amit Hendleman, husband and wife from Los Angeles, filed the lawsuit seeking damages for an undisclosed amount from MMSA and Colbert after they were involved in an accident as part of a snowmobile tour on January 24, 2010. The Hendleman’s attorney, Sean Novak of Beverly Hills, alluded to seeking damages of $7 million or more in his opening statements.
Novak claims “recklessness of the defendant in failing to safely maintain the snowmobiles that they rent out.” He said the snowmobile rented to the Hendlemans was a 2006 Polaris with 7,000 miles on it. The carbides had never been replaced, although the manual advises changing them every 1,000 miles, and they were worn down and cracked.
“The defendant did not follow proper maintenance, did not provide a safe tour and that is the cause of this accident. They did not maintain the snowmobile safely and the plaintiffs had to pay the price,” he said. He also accused Colbert and the mountain of making modifications to the snowmobile in order to save money and prolong the life span.
He said the Mountain runs “customers through a conveyor belt” in order to maximize revenue, without taking individuals into consideration. He attacked the marketing for the Snowmobile Adventures, saying it didn’t advertise the risks involved or that there would be trees on the tour. He argued that Amit didn’t sign the release of liability form and Colbert forged her signature, as supported by a handwriting expert they retained.
According to Novak’s account, fairly early into the tour, Amit the driver, lost control of the machine as it darted off the trail and hit a tree. She was thrown head first into the tree, where she lost consciousness and then landed on open engine components resulting in third degree burns to the lower half of her body. Her right arm was also shattered.
She was taken to Mammoth Hospital, and then airlifted to Renown Medical Center in Reno, where she underwent surgery on her arm without ever regaining consciousness. She was later transported to UCLA where she underwent two brain surgeries to contain two different brain aneurisms. Her husband was launched 20 feet and broke his hip in the accident as well.
According to Novak, Amit grew up in Israel where she obtained a degree in education while serving in the Israeli Army. She worked with at-risk youth in Israel before moving to California where she is a licensed teacher and was working at a preschool while waiting for a position in the school district to open, before the accident occurred.
Novak said Amit has permanent brain damage, has lost 75 percent of her vision, wears hearing aids, has a traumatic epileptic disorder that causes seizures, and has “almost no short term memory” and can “read like a five year old.” She also suffers continual pain in her right arm, which still has hardware, and continual neck and back pain.
She stopped using her epilepsy medicine during pregnancy last year and gave birth to their daughter two months ago. She has since suffered major seizures. Her mom is visiting from Israel to help with the baby, but has to return soon. Orit already works full time and cannot provide the 24-hour care his wife needs, along with taking care of their daughter.
“There is physical evidence that [the Hendlemans] did nothing to cause the accident,” said Novak. He said the medical bills have cost “hundreds of thousands of dollars,” the life care plan for Amit is estimated at $5 million, and the lost wages and benefits from her lost career is $2 million.
The defense attorney, Mark Tokunaga argued the inherent risks of snowmobiling and all manufacturers disclaim the possibility of injury and death. He denied the allegations that Mammoth modified the vehicle in any way and said the carbides were worn less than 50 percent at the time of the accident.
He attested that Colbert wasn’t even working on the day of the accident and that Orit filled out the “release and acknowledgement of risk” form, dating both signature lines and signing the form. Orit and Amit also signed the Mammoth ticket, which also states the liability of the user including “risks such as injury, paralysis, or death” and “riding on uneven snow, changing snow conditions, trees, rocks and manmade and natural obstacles.”
The defense maintains that the Hendlemans were stopped twice before the accident, a routine procedure to make sure everyone is comfortable on their snowmobiles. Neither Amit nor Orit voiced any questions or concerns about the operation of their machine. In their estimation, the evidence will also prove that Amit had ample time to react and slow the vehicle before it hit the tree. “Nothing Mammoth did increased the risks inherent to snowmobiling,” Tokunaga concluded. “They cannot be held liable for this unfortunate accident.”
The court trial is estimated to last 15 days.