A judge has ruled in favor of the local rafting company that was sued by the widow of a man who died in 2014 after falling out of a boat on the Roaring Fork River.

Jennifer Lenze of Manhattan Beach, Calif., filed the wrongful-death lawsuit against Blazing Adventures, its then owner and three guides in 2016. Her husband, Paul Sizemore, the 44-year-old father of six, died after he was pulled from the river on June 16, 2014. He and another man were swept off the boat as it went through the Hell’s Half Mile rapid in the Slaughterhouse section. The other man swam ashore uninjured.

Sizemore, after struggling in the river, was pulled back into the raft by his wife and other passengers. He told Lenze he was having trouble breathing and became unresponsive in her arms, according to court documents. Treatment and CPR by multiple people, including a doctor passing by on the Rio Grande Trail, followed. The cause of death was listed as drowning, with heart disease being a contributing factor.

The legal case centered mostly on the validity of the waivers Sizemore signed for himself and his wife, both attorneys, on a shuttle to the put-in, as well as the promotional material at a hotel that led to their participation — and whether they were alerted them to the fact they were about to face Class IV rapids.

The couple signed up for the trip in the lobby of the Ritz Carlton at Aspen Highlands. A pamphlet there labeled the Slaughterhouse section as “extreme — advanced” and that “technical paddling and physical ability are a must — experienced rafters only,” the ruling says.

But Lenze said during her deposition in September that neither she nor Sizemore saw that information, and testified that she had no idea they were about to face such a volatile section of the river.

The lawsuit accused Blazing Adventures and other defendants, including one of the then-owners, Dan McMahon, and three guides, of “misrepresenting the nature and scope of risks involved in the Slaughterhouse rapids trip, particularly as it relates to beginner rafters …,” says the ruling by Judge Chris Seldin of Pitkin County District Court. McMahon, now an employee but no longer a co-owner, and the guides were eventually dismissed from the lawsuit.

Judge Seldin noted, however, that Lenze and Sizemore did not inquire about the conditions passengers might experience.

Blazing Adventures’ legal team filed a motion for summary judgment, seeking a pretrial ruling in its favor based on the waivers Sizemore signed for himself and his partner.

“Upon checking in at the Ritz on June 14, 2014, Sizemore and Lenze spoke with a concierge member, and behind that individual was a video screen with either a photo, video or scrolling photos depicting smiling people rafting,” Lenze’s attorneys responded to that motion.

The couple said it looked like fun, and the concierge employee said the trip would be scheduled for them, the response says.

“No other information was provided at the time of this conversation with the concierge at the Ritz concerning the prospective rafting trip,” the filing says (the Ritz Carlton was not listed as a defendant). “The Ritz concierge did not supply Sizemore and Lenze with the Blazing activity brochure.”

That brochure, according to Judge Seldin’s ruling, alerted would-be participants about the “extreme” conditions they might face. But either during the drive to the put-in or once at the side of the river, or at both times, guides gave a detailed talk about the section of river and what was expected in terms of paddling and safety, including throw ropes, high-siding and what to do if you end up swimming, other filings show.

The judge, in ruling for Blazing Adventures, cited a similar case involving a drowning death on the Arkansas River. As in this case, the commercial rafting firm, citing the waiver the victim had signed, prevailed.

The case was appealed to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals, which issued an opinion by Judge Neil Gorsuch, now a U.S. Supreme Court justice. Justice Gorsuch applied a legal test that involved, in the evaluation of the validity of a waiver, the existence of a duty to the public and the nature of the service performed.

As in the Arkansas River case, the plaintiff alleged that “Blazing acted unlawfully by placing Sizemore in the wrong kind of trip,” Judge Seldin wrote.

But his ruling notes that Sizemore was, and Lenze remains, “seasoned tort lawyers.” As such, they understood what Sizemore was signing and that they were not pressured.

Judge Seldin also included in his ruling a portion of the waiver that says, “Participants in Class IV and V whitewater trips acknowledge and accept that these trips are extremely advanced, can include long and very violent rapids on congested routes and can subject participants to increased risks, hazards and dangers, and more difficult rescue conditions.”

The ruling says “Sizemore and Lenze were amply qualified to understand the implications of signing the release, and they had every opportunity to abandon the trip after being informed of the risks they faced,” Judge Seldin wrote. “Their choice to continue with the trip after those risks were disclosed is one for which they must accept responsibility.

“The court extends its deepest sympathies to the Sizemore family,” the ruling says. “The release, however, is valid and bars the claims …”

Efforts to reach Lenze and her attorneys were unsuccessful.

McMahon on Friday, while acknowledging the tragedy, said Blazing Adventures believes Judge Seldin “fairly considered the issues and reached the correct ruling.”

chad@aspendailynews.com