Trial begins over COVID outbreak in Austrian ski resort

FILE - In this May 13, 2020 file photo, a barrier blocks the road at the closed border crossing from Austria to the Czech Republic near Reinthal, Austria. European Union countries are set to adopt a common traffic light system to coordinate traveling across the 27-nation bloc, but a return to a full freedom of movement in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic remains far from reach. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak, File)
FILE - In this May 13, 2020 file photo, a barrier blocks the road at the closed border crossing from Austria to the Czech Republic near Reinthal, Austria. European Union countries are set to adopt a common traffic light system to coordinate traveling across the 27-nation bloc, but a return to a full freedom of movement in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic remains far from reach. (AP Photo/Ronald Zak, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

VIENNA – A civil trial opened Friday in Austria over the government's handling of a coronavirus outbreak at an Alpine ski resort during the early stages of the pandemic that relatives say resulted in unnecessary infections and deaths.

Sieglinde and Ullrich Schopf, the widow and son of a 72-year-old Austrian man who died of COVID-19 after becoming infected in Ischgl, are seeking about 100,000 euros ($117,000) compensation from the government. Their is seen as a test case for a larger class action suit involving hundreds of people who fell ill with COVID-19 following a trip to the Paznaun valley in February and March 2020.

The family is supported by Austria's Consumer Protection Association, which said it is open to a negotiated settlement.

The outbreak in Ischgl, a popular resort in western Austria, is considered one of Europe’s earliest “super-spreader” events of the pandemic.

"Stopping people from leaving and arriving in the Paznaun valley or at least issuing a travel warning — the authorities failed to do that,” said Alexander Klauser, a lawyer representing the Schopf family. “Thousands of people left the Paznaun valley unhindered, thousands of people arrived without a clue that they were in danger.”

An independent commission last year concluded that authorities in the Tyrol region acted too slowly to shut down ski resorts in the valley after it became clear they were dealing with one of Europe’s first coronavirus outbreaks in March. But the panel didn't find evidence that political or business pressure played a role in the decisions.

Klauser, the lawyer, said that even after authorities issued a directive to close apres-ski bars it wasn’t enforced strongly enough.

“Open air mass gatherings which were forbidden according to the directive continued,” he said. “The police just watched on without doing anything.”