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Trials begin, damages to be determined in Excalibur collapse

First plaintiff felt she was lucky to be alive when rescued


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Vancouver — When an Excalibur gondola cabin collapsed towards the ground during a tower failure, Amy Sefton said it left her suffering frightening nightmares, nervous shock and permanent physical disability.

This week the U.K. national, who lives and works in Whistler, took her claims, stemming from the Dec. 16, 2008 accident, to BC Supreme Court, where a five-day trial by judge alone will determine how much Sefton should receive in damages from the defendants, Doppelmayr CTEC Ltd., Intrawest ULC, Intrawest Mountain Resorts Ltd., Blackcomb Skiing Enterprises Limited Partnership and Whistler Mountain Resort Limited Partnership.

No one died in the gondola collapse.

When she took the stand during cross-examination on Wednesday, April 10, Sefton grew tearful over repeated questioning about going snowboarding and the lifts and gondolas she used in the Christmas period following the accident.

"I've really blocked out this period," she told defence lawyer Michael Gianacopoulos, dabbing away her tears.

"I'm doing the best to recall what I can."

Sefton is one of 10 claimants represented by Whistler's mayor, Nancy Wilhelm-Morden, who took on the cases as part of her legal work before winning the 2011 election.

Justice Allen Betton also heard through the testimony of a plaintiff's expert witness, West Vancouver psychiatrist Dr. Margaret Weiss, that Sefton felt glad to be alive after being rescued from the dangling gondola car.

Weiss met with Sefton for more than three hours this February and said as the interview progressed she changed from a smiling confident woman to someone who "... became far more tearful, muddled and ashamed because it is not her style and not her culture to express extreme distress without feeling, in her words, guilty about it."

When cross-examined by defence, Weiss admitted that she could not rule out that Sefton was "malingering," but, added Weiss, the examples Sefton relayed "could not have come out of reading a textbook."

Sefton was 22 at the time of the accident, living in Whistler for a season and working at the Four Seasons.

The accident happened around 2:30 p.m. when the top half of Tower #4 on the Excalibur Gondola sheared off the lower section. No cabins came off the cable but as the cable sagged, some cabins slumped nine metres, bouncing as they went. One collided with the top of a bus shelter in the drop-off loop at the Gondola Exchange.

Sefton was trapped in her cabin for more than two and a half hours before being rescued.

In her statement of claim, filed in court on March 5, 2010, Sefton said she has sustained psychological injuries, loss and damage including: nervous shock, soft tissue injuries, injuries to her neck, back and head, bilateral knee injury, nightmares and anxiety, among other things.

The injuries, the claim states, have caused and continue to cause Sefton pain, suffering, loss of enjoyment of life, psychological injury, permanent physical disability and loss of earnings, past and prospective.

The only issue at the trial is how much is owed in damages.

"The defendants have consented to having damages assessed against them," said a notice of application filed in court last week. "There is no need to prove negligence or make a finding in that regard."

Fifty-three people were trapped in gondola cars in the lower half of the lift, some for more than three hours during the course of the incident. While all were dressed for snowsports, few had food or water and the temperature fell to -12 degrees C.

Twelve people, including Sefton, were treated at the Whistler Health Care Centre that day but all were released.

Whistler Blackcomb and the B.C. Safety Authority undertook a full investigation of the accident.

Water seeped into the tower and froze in the extremely cold temperatures. The expanding ice caused the top of the tower to sheer off at the flanges that connect the upper and lower parts of the tower, which were bolted and welded together.

The process is known as "ice-jacking."

The issue was compounded in the case of the Excalibur tower because the lower part of the tower was partially filled with concrete to provide more dampening, making it difficult to check for water.

Eighteen months after the accident the B.C. Safety Authority submitted its final report. Whistler Blackcomb and other ski areas had already acted on most of the recommendations at the time of the release, including following up on Doppelmayr's service bulletin that said they needed to drill holes in towers so that any water can drain out.

The trials are scheduled to continue over the coming weeks.