By Matt Masich, LAW WEEK COLORADO
DENVER — The very first people who invested in Keystone Ski Resort in 1969 got a pretty sweet perk. Along with their shares of Keystone stock, the 33 investors were each given five lifetime ski passes for their $25,000 investments.
And the lifetime passes weren’t just for the person whose names were on them — they could be loaned to other people or sold and permanently reassigned, though they would still only be valid for the lifetime of the original owner.
It didn’t take long for the holders of these transferable passes to realize they could make money renting them to skiers and snowboarders, charging about 10 percent less than the going rate for lift tickets. This went on for over three decades, with some lifetime pass owners making thousands of dollars a year. But those days are over.
In 2006, Vail Resorts, which bought Keystone from Ralston-Purina in 1996, announced it would stop honoring rented lifetime passes. This came as a shock to pass owners.
Tony Snyder, who along with his family had purchased 14 lifetime passes to rent out, said he was “surprised and angry” when he heard what Vail had done.
“We had openly rented the passes for years,” Snyder said. “The rental of these passes [was] to be a financial component of our retirement.”
Snyder and more than 20 other pass owners are suing Vail for violating the lifetime pass agreement. When Snyder v. Vail Resorts, Inc. goes to trial in Summit County District Court in Breckenridge on Sept. 21, the plaintiffs will be seeking damages or an injunction forcing the resort to honor rented passes, or both. Judge Karen Romeo is to preside over the two-week trial.
“They issued these lifetime transferrable passes without imposing any limitations on to whom or the conditions under which they could be transferred,” said Reid Neureiter of Jacobs Chase Frick Kleinkopf & Kelley, who along with colleague Kathryn Reilly is representing the plaintiffs.
“For them [Vail] to say — 35 years after the fact — ‘Oh, and we’ve got a new rule: You can’t receive anything of value if you give your pass to somebody’ is not fair and is a breach of the original agreement.”
Vail, in addition to the ban on renting, also started requiring pass owners to send in or fax a transfer form when they lend passes to others, even if it’s given for free. Pass owners see this as an intentional move to discourage the transfer of passes. Vail has also said that it has no legal obligation to honor the Keystone lifetime passes at all in any situation, Neureiter said, though for the time being it will continue honoring them.
“That, in my view, is just retaliatory conduct by somebody that’s never disputed their obligation to honor these passes,” Neureiter said.
Michael Hofmann of Holme Roberts & Owen, Vail’s attorney in the case, declined comment. Vail spokeswoman Kelly Ladyga also declined comment, other than to say, “We will always vigorously defend our rights when others abuse their privileges.”
The 24 plaintiffs listed in the case are seeking damages to compensate for the money they could have made renting the 32 passes they own. Because the amount of time that a pass is valid is tied to the lifetime of the original owner, the damages sought for each pass vary depending how long that person is expected to live.
In some cases, the passes were originally assigned to investors’ grandchildren, who are in their 40s now and could easily live another 30 or more years.
A lifetime pass could bring its owner more than $8,000 a year at today’s lift ticket rates. Without accounting for inflation and lift ticket price increases, that translates to nearly a quarter million dollars over 30 years.
Some of the plaintiffs are also seeking exemplary damages.