13,000 Sent to E.R. Every Year for Snowmobiling Personal Injuries
Lewis and Clark County Coroner Mickey Nelson told the Helena Independent Record that 27-year-old Kelly James Hatcher died from internal head and chest injuries and that alcohol was present and a “likely” factor in the incident.
According to County Sheriff Leo Dutton, Hatcher and a friend, Jeremy Speer, went
snowmobiling that morning at the base of Hogback Mountain. When they drove
their machines into the Sunshine Basin, Hatcher struck an icy overhang from a
rock ledge, his snowmobile veered out of control, and it landed on top of him. When
Speer couldn’t revive his friend, he drove his snowmobile to a nearby tavern to
call 911 at 1:30 p.m.
Rescuers had difficulty locating the spot of the accident because high winds had covered the snowmobile tracks, and by the time they located Hatcher after 5 p.m., he was
In Hatcher’s newspaper obituary, his family said that he died doing what he most loved to
do, riding a snowmobile. A lifelong resident of Helena, Hatcher had been the
manager of the Mackenzie River Pizza Co. for the last six years and loved to
spend his leisure hours snowmobiling with friends and spending time with his
wife and young son.
Since the 1960s, when snowmobiles first became a popular consumer item in the U.S.,
stories like this one have become all too common during winter months. According
to the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), snowmobile accidents typically
claim more than 100 lives and send another 13,000 to emergency rooms every
Furthermore, there’s no sign that the rate of death and injury caused by snowmobiles is easing. Last year, the New York State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation conducted a study on the topic and reported that snowmobile accidents had increased in the Empire State by 11.5 percent between 2007 and 2009. Jim Reed, an attorney at the Ziff Law Firm in Elmira, read about that report in his local newspaper and wasn’t surprised.
“I know that I have seen more of these accidents in the last few years than I have ever seen before in my 26 years of representing accident victims,” he said.
Like many personal injury lawyers in the nation’s snowier climes, Reed and his colleagues at the Ziff firm identify snowmobile accidents as almost a separate category within their motor-vehicle practice areas, distinct from cases resulting from accidents on roadways involving vehicles with tires.
“Auto cases often involve violations of the vehicle and traffic laws, whereas most snowmobile cases do not necessarily involve a violation of the law because there aren’t a great number of laws specifically covering snowmobile operation,” Reed says.
The typical snowmobile case, he says, involves an injury to a passenger caused by operators doing something careless or unsafe. He classifies the majority of his snowmobile cases as “driver negligence.”
In order for snowmobile operators to decrease their risks of being named as a defendant in a negligence case, it is imperative that they receive proper training, use proper safety equipment, and learn the “rules of the road,” before they operate their machines, Reed says.
“Two simple things every new snowmobile operator should do is read the snowmobile manual—seriously, reading the manual is helpful—and have an experienced snowmobile operator teach them the basic rules of snowmobile operation,” he says.
He also warns that snowmobile operators should never drink and drive their machines.
Meanwhile, the CPSC offers a number of other safety tips for snowmobilers:
- Never operate your snowmobile alone or on unfamiliar ground.
- Drive only along marked trails or designated use areas.
- Avoid frozen waterways.
- Avoid driving in bad weather.
- Slow down when approaching the top of a hill. There could be a hazard ahead on the down slope.
- Don’t try to hurdle snowbanks. Make sure the machine’s skis are always on the ground.
- Learn the snowmobile laws for your state and locale. For instance, some states prohibit operation on public thoroughfares. Many also have minimum-age requirements.
- Always stop at roads and railroad tracks.
- Signal your turns.
- Use extra caution when driving at night.
- Be sure your snowmobile is properly maintained and in good operating condition.