The snow was fresh when Trevor Purvis suited up for a day on the slopes of Whistler's Blackcomb peak, about 100 kilometres north of Vancouver.
The 39-year-old snowboarder was an experienced rider and a season pass holder, ready to catch some air with friends in January 2021. But on an early descent down the iconic mountain on Jan. 2, the leading edge of his board got caught in the snow. Purvis lost control — and rammed right into a tree.
"I didn't actually feel pain at first," the Vancouverite remembers.
"My first thought was, 'I'm probably not going to do much more riding today."
He was right.
Purvis had fractured his right femur, a tough break that required surgery and subsequent hospitalization. He was out for the season — and out hundreds of dollars for the season pass he had purchased in September 2020.
But soon into his recovery process, Purvis remembered that he had insurance attached to his pass. He got his paperwork together and submitted his claim, hoping to recoup at least some of the roughly $1,000 he had spent on the pass.
He didn't know then that he would have more than a year of unanswered emails, miscommunication and administrative headaches ahead of him.
When Go Public contacted Vail Resorts, the American company that owns Whistler Blackcomb, the company said it would refund Purvis $340.22, because he had already used it to access the mountain a few times since the season began at the end of November.
"It's vindication, but it's also like, this is silly. Nobody should have to do what I did to get 340 Canadian dollars," he said.
More than two dozen people from inside and outside British Columbia have contacted Go Public about their experiences with Vail's so-called Epic Coverage refund policy — terms and conditions created by Vail Resorts and managed by its adjuster, American Claims Management (ACM). They cited poor communication, lengthy processes and hard to understand conditions.
The terms and conditions for Epic Coverage are on Vail's website. But Toronto lawyer Bronwyn Martin, who specializes in insurance law, says the fine print and the process of applying for a refund are unclear — a common theme with insurance policies across the board.
"The court and lawyers are alive to the fact that insurance companies are notoriously obscure," she said.
"This story shows that consumers are having a hard time getting an answer, and they don't know who to speak to."
As the pandemic started to avalanche across the country, Vail Resorts decided to no longer offer its customers the opportunity to purchase pass insurance, starting in the 2020/2021 ski season.
Instead, every ski pass purchased came with what Vail Resorts calls Epic Coverage, at no additional cost. Vail created the terms for the policy on its own — unlike its previous insurance policy, no external insurer was used to underwrite it.
In an emailed statement to Go Public, Vail described the new feature as "a complimentary refund policy that provides refunds across a range of qualifying personal events (i.e. job loss, injury and illness) and qualifying resort closures (i.e. closure as a result of COVID-19)."
The company said the policy provides refunds for the same "personal events" that were eligible for refunds when guests had to purchase insurance but that "it is not a refund-for-any-reason program."
According to the terms and conditions, Vail pass holders are entitled to a refund for personal injury if that "injury prevents you from using your pass for 30 or more consecutive days." According to Purvis, it took him months to even be able to walk without crutches.
Purvis contacted his nurse practitioner to fill out the necessary paperwork and emailed it all to ACM within the timeline indicated on his policy.
After weeks of silence, Purvis started following up.
"You're just getting these automated responses that are like, you know, 'Yeah, your claim is in line and due to … a large number of calls … we'll get back to you as soon as we can,'" he said.
He tried contacting Vail Resorts itself — but the company maintained insurance claims were out of its hands.
"They just say it's not their situation," Purvis said.
At one point, Purvis said, ACM told him it had closed his file because it had not received his paperwork.
After Go Public reached Vail Resorts, ACM contacted Purvis and paid out his claim.
COVID-19 closures not covered outright
Jenny Wright, 64, and her family purchased five-day Edge cards in November 2020 — another Vail Resort pass option that can be loaded with two-, five- or 10-day ski passes.
The Maple Ridge, B.C., woman phoned Whistler Blackcomb directly to ask what would happen if the resort had to close.
"We called them twice and spoke to different people in the guest services and said, 'We're concerned about this. Like, will we get it back?,'" she said.
"'Yes, you'll get it back, blah, blah.'"
Sure enough, the mountain closed on March 30, 2021, for the remainder of the winter ski season on account of the pandemic. Wright and her son had one day remaining on their passes.
In mid-April, Wright called Whistler Blackcomb to find out how to go about getting a refund for the unused day. She said an employee told her to look out for an email with that information — but that email never came.
It turned out Wright did not qualify for a resort closure refund.
According to the company, 2020-2021 pass holders were given a choice to elect Epic Coverage for the entirety of the resort's "core season" — a specific time frame between December and April — or for seven specific "priority reservation days" they would have to pre-book.
Whether or not a customer was eligible for a COVID-19 closure refund was dependent on which option they chose — information that wasn't made clear on the Edge card policy itself. Edge card holders would have had to click on the link at the top of the document, then navigate through Epic Coverage's terms and conditions to decipher the rules on their own.
Go Public asked Vail to clarify how the terms apply to Wright. A spokesperson for the company responded via email.
"In Ms. Wright's case, if she had indicated, by booking priority reservation days, that she planned to visit Whistler Blackcomb on days of the core season after the resort closed (March 30 – April 4, 2021), she would have received a refund for those days," the email said.
Vail's reasoning for refund refusal didn't sit well with Wright. She said she doesn't understand Vail's core season condition. Had the mountain remained open, she said, her family would have used their last day pass sometime before the end of season in late May.
"I felt like they were just making all these excuses and reasons why they weren't going to give us … a credit," said Wright.
Greg and Leslie Huxtable found themselves in the same situation.
On the day after Whistler Blackcomb closed, Greg filed the paperwork for a refund. Months later, the Huxtables got a letter from ACM saying the claim was denied. He believes he should get a refund for the day on the slopes that he paid for but couldn't use.
"It's as simple as, you pay for a service, you don't get the service," said Greg Huxtable. "It's the principle of it that really bothers me."
He has since filed a complaint with Consumer Protection B.C.
'Unprecedented pass protections:' Vail
Go Public reached both Vail Resorts and American Claims Management.
ACM would not comment on specific cases, nor about its contract with Vail. The company indicated that Vail Resorts would "respond on behalf of everyone."
Vail Resorts said that each insurance claim is case-specific and provided Go Public with the link to Epic Coverage terms and conditions.
"As a company, we worked hard last season amid the height of the pandemic to provide our guests with a variety of different product offerings to serve their needs, comprehensive safety measures and unprecedented pass protections," wrote Jennifer Smith, a senior communications manager with the company.
"While no one could have foreseen all situations, we worked earnestly to do our best for our guests."
Go Public has also learned that Vail Resorts changed adjusters ahead of the 2021/2022 ski season to Sedgewick from American Claims Management. Vail indicated the reason for the switchover was "to support our efforts to improve guest service."
In terms of which entity pays out refund claims, Vail said "while some Epic Coverage claims are administered by a third party, refunds are provided by Vail Resorts."
Martin said while refund policies are traditionally complicated, Vail Resorts should do a better job at communicating with their customers exactly what the limitations are.
"If they're using these policies to entice the public to buy the passes, then they've got to help the public out."
She said if Vail and other companies take steps to ensure policy conditions are obvious to consumers, surprises — and hassle — can be avoided on both sides.
She said consumers have the option to turn to consumer protection branches in their own province or investigate what recourse they have if they feel they've been wronged, including potentially filing a civil lawsuit— though that may be financially unfavourable.
"When you have these small claim … people kind of get worn down and say, 'Oh well, I guess that's money down the drain.'"
As for Purvis, he is fully recovered and back on the slopes. Despite all the frustration he's experienced, he expects he'll be a Vail customer for seasons to come.
"Unfortunately, they have the mountain that I want to be on."
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Caroline began her career co-hosting an internet radio talk show in Toronto and then worked at various stations in Oshawa, Sudbury and Toronto before landing in Winnipeg in 2007. Since joining CBC Manitoba as a reporter in 2013, she has won an award for her work on crowded jails and her investigation into Tina Fontaine's death led to changes in the child welfare system. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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