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Copyright © 2003 Express Publishing Inc.
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Friday — April 2, 2004


Settlement made in ‘test-of-wills’ trial

Ski pass lawsuit settled where it began

Express Staff Writer

A dispute that began over a suspended season ski pass but mushroomed into a bitter lawsuit costing tens of thousands of dollars was settled Thursday on essentially the terms first demanded by the plaintiff more than three years ago.

The Sun Valley Co. and general manager Wally Huffman agreed to refund the cost of a season ski pass ($1,650) and several day passes ($161) to longtime California and Ketchum restaurateur Larry Stone.

Huffman also gave Stone what he also had requested—an apology for lifting the pass.

In prolonged cross examination testimony Wednesday during the two-and-a-half day trial, Huffman repeatedly expressed regrets about lifting Stone’s pass in a dispute over credit card charges that Stone denied he made. Huffman called his act "one of the worst decisions" in his career" and "(I) felt terrible about the whole thing."

However, Stone and his attorney, Fritz Haemmerle, lost their major argument in the lawsuit seeking damages. District Judge John Butler, of Twin Falls, refused to allow them to ask a jury for punitive damages against Sun Valley Co. and Huffman.

After Judge Butler dismissed the jury, which had been sequestered while attorneys argued over the punitive damage issue, Haemmerle, who clearly had expected a favorable ruling, said he didn’t know whether the decision prohibiting punitive damages would be appealed.

However, he said Stone will seek reimbursement of legal fees from the Sun Valley Co., which is owned by Sinclair Oil Co. Haemmerle will file papers with Judge Butler soon seeking the payment of legal costs and other fees.

Although Haemmerle would only describe Stone’s legal costs as "significant," he did say that a reporter’s estimate of $50,000 in total fees for both sides would be "very conservative."

In a spirited appeal to Judge Butler, Haemmerle contended he should be allowed to ask the 12-person jury for punitive damages because Huffman had been "malicious" in electronically canceling Stone’s pass on March 23, 2001, even as Stone was about to board a lift at Warm Springs to ski with friends.

Sun Valley Co. and Huffman attorney Trudy Falger, of Boise, countered that Huffman’s decision, even if wrong, did not cause economic harm to Stone or threaten anyone’s safety.

After citing rulings on punitive damages in cases argued before other courts, Judge Butler concluded that Stone and Huffman "allowed their emotions to get the best of them"; that Huffman had used "poor business judgment" in lifting the ski pass, and the lawsuit had grown out of "a bit of spite of two individuals."

The dispute began in August 2000 when Stone, part owner of the Ketchum Grill, challenged $812.16 in charges at the Brass Ranch store on his credit card as not his and had them reversed by his bank.

Stone’s card numbers had been manually entered for the purchases and Stone claimed signatures on the card slips were not his.

Six months later, after the charge reversal was reported to Huffman during an executive staff meeting, Huffman ordered Stone’s season ski pass lifted "to get his attention" and force Stone to call Huffman.

Huffman testified that during a brief phone call, Stone used several obscenities, demanding his pass returned and accusing Huffman of "stealing" it.

But Huffman testified he did not know then what he subsequently learned—that Stone and his family were in Santa Barbara, Calif., on the day the card charges were made and that Stone had told several of his subordinates that the charges were not his.

Huffman acknowledged during the trial that he no longer believes Stone made the disputed charges.

As for lifting the pass, Huffman said he had relied for authority on a ski industry-written statement on the back of passes they could be revoked for violations of rules and regulations on the ski mountain. Huffman contended that the whole resort, including the retail shops, constitute the ski area.

Judge Butler said that although the policy statement may be ambiguous, Huffman’s lifting of Stone’s pass "clearly has to be a bad act and a bad state of mind."

The judge noted that an impasse between the two men described during testimony as strong-willed developed when Huffman wanted Stone to come to his office to discuss the issue and Stone wanted Huffman to come meet him.

What was never made clear during the trial was why Huffman didn’t return Stone’s pass after apparently agreeing to do so during a conversation with a friend of Stone’s, attorney Barry Luboviski. He quoted Huffman as calling Stone a "cheat" and "thief." Luboviski cautioned Huffman, he said, that such remarks "is what can get you sued." Several times during Huffman’s testimony, he claimed Stone had called him a "thief" around Ketchum.

Huffman’s testimony provided the trial’s most riveting moments, since it was his unwillingness to return the pass and to apologize to Stone that fueled the lawsuit.

"Wish I hadn’t lifted Stone’s pass," Huffman testified under questioning. "The whole situation was a debacle, a disaster."

He said he told attorney Luboviski, who had called Huffman the day the ski pass was lifted, to try solving the dispute quickly, "This thing is a mess."

Several times Huffman said he wished he had returned the pass, but said he felt "totally insulted" by Stone’s phone call that included raw vulgarities and Stone hanging up abruptly.


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