It was a New Year's Day, a tight-knit group of friends will never forget for all the wrong reasons. A night of snow tubing at the Woodbury Ski Area ended in the hospital after they say a rope tow lift malfunctioned, sending the family size tube they were in careening down the hill and into the lift mechanism.
J.J. Lavieri, of Columbia, needed 27 staples and 10 stitches to close the gash on his head. He also broke 5 of his ribs and bruised his lung. Brittany Kaytis, of Tolland, broke her foot, suffered a concussion and numerous cuts and bruises. Mikaely Whitehouse, of Columbia, was knocked unconscious and injured her back.
Their attorney, Tracy Montalbano, says the accident could have been prevented.
"Each one of them wants to see the Woodbury Ski Area shut down," said Montalbano.
Montalbano says she's waiting for the results of a state police investigation into the crash before filing lawsuits on her client's behalf. NBC Connecticut spoke with Woodbury Ski Owner Rod Taylor by phone. He says the accident wouldn't have happened if the group had obeyed the rules.
But they aren't the only one suing the ski area because of a tubing accident. The Troubleshooters found 7 others already have cases pending in court, including Donald Cariati.
"I didn't know what was on the other side, how far the drop was, how far we would go. I remember seeing trees and stars at the same time and didn't know what was going to happen," said Cariati.
He says he and his sister, Elaine, were injured while tubing at the Woodbury Ski Area last year after the tube they were in went through a fence at the end of a run and fell off a 20 foot cliff. He says the tube runs should have been closed after they started icing up but weren't. Elaine suffered a concussion and needed 10 staples to close a gash in her head. Cariati fractured his tailbone and hurt his neck.
"Exactly what can happen happened to us. I fear for so many other people and when I hear other accidents that have happened there it makes me feel bad that someone hasn't done something yet. When is enough enough?" Cariati said.
He says Woodbury isn't a safe place and he's not the only one who feels that way. Nine complaints have been filed with the State Bureau of Elevators, which regulates ski lifts, in the last 10 years alleging Woodbury puts its riders at risk.
A 2005 complaint details a tubing accident that appears identical to the New Year's Day crash. According to the file, the victims were also riding in a family tube that was connected to the rope tow lift when the tube unhooked and sent the family crashing down the hill and into a wooden fence. The Bureau of Elevators found no issues with the lift, but recommended the ski area not use the rope tow to hoist people in a family size tube. Eight years later, it happened again though.
"Maybe now is the time that things will change," said Montalbano.
Inspectors also noted violations with the same lift in 2006, 2007, and 2008.
"I just don't know that people recognize the issues with the Woodbury Ski Area. I know I for one didn't know and never thought to look into it. I never had a reason to look into it," Montalbano said.
The Troubleshooters went undercover to check things out and found kids younger than 12 tubing without a helmet. It's something the ski area says is mandatory, although our cameras found no one enforcing it. In several cases, kids came dangerously close to the top of a fence at the bottom of a beginner tube run. On the other side of the fence is an embankment that leads into a brook below.
NBC Connecticut did see signs at the bottom of every tube run listing the rules and making it clear customers tube at their own risk. Taylor told the Troubleshooters that it's ultimately up to the parents to make sure their children are wearing a helmet and are following the rules.
But a former Woodbury employee says the signs aren't enough. Barry Grimbeek says he saw dozens of tubing crashes in the 2 months he worked at the ski area.
"It didn't seem right to me that so many people were getting hurt in such a short period of time. I understand tubing is dangerous, but to get hurt that often..." said Grimbeek.
The Troubleshooters confirmed ambulance crews were called to the ski area at least once a week during the last 3 winter seasons and as often as once a day during the busy Christmas school break.
"It's inherently a dangerous sport just when you go down a hill with a tube. Then you build curves and hills and slides and jumps when there are no standards there and it seems to me it has the potential for injury as we have seen here," said Gerald Stomski, Woodbury's First Selectman.
Stomski says he's also concerned about the general lack of standards in the ski and snow tube industry.
"When Mr. Taylor was building his tubing course, we realized that there were no industry standards to be able to create that. So, it's hard to determine whether or not a tubing course is safe," said Stomski.
The General Manager of Mount Southington, Ed Beckley, admits it was a challenge for him as well. He added tubing to the ski area 15 years ago, but closed the runs soon after because he says they weren't safe.
"We couldn't get the tubes to stop fast enough. The conditions changed rapidly from the daytime to the evening and the lanes that they are riding in also change. They get slicked over and then it freezes at night. Consequently it's difficult to run a really good operation, but it can be done," said Beckley.
Despite all the accidents and complaints, Woodbury owner Rod Taylor says he'll never get rid of tubing because he loves it too much, but admits he could go out of business any day because of the lawsuits that have been brought against him. He ended by saying, "If you don't want to take the risk, don't do the sport. There is a lot of fun to be had tubing, but it takes common sense."
Montalbano says there's more to it than that and feels Taylor's history of negligence can't be ignored any longer.
"This could happen to you, because this did happen to them," she said.
Montalbano also said Woodbury does not have a ski patrol to respond to emergencies and has no general liability insurance. Taylor told NBC Connecticut he doesn't feel he needs a ski patrol and didn't want to comment on his insurance status.