November 24, 2017

Fallout From Holding States Liable for Animal Attacks and Damages

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Two days ago I wrote about how the state of Utah can be held liable for the death of an 11-year-old boy by a black bear, according to a ruling in the Utah Supreme Court. In that ruling the Supreme Court stated that bears are not part of the “natural condition” one expects to find in the forests and fields. In addition, the same ruling declared that the State of Utah established a “special relationship” with the family of the 11-year-old boy and campers in general because the state was carrying out several things in order to protect the campers from bears. However, the State of Utah can now be sued by the family and may be charged with negligence in carrying out their duties to keep campers safe.

I spoke of the precedent such a ruling may carry in that it raises the question as to how far the courts will go in holding states liable for attacks on humans by wild animals and the damages they can create. What I did not talk about in this article was the negative fallout that may result from this ruling.

There are at least two ways of looking at how states may choose to react to this ruling in Utah. The more obvious side would be to err on the side of caution, perhaps even to the extreme, and quickly move to shut down any and all campsites, for example, when any reports surface of the presence of bears or any other large predator. We may be seeing that now as one report out of Colorado today reveals that officials at the James M. Robb Colorado River State Park, have banned all campers from sleeping in tents because of a reported bear in the area. Officials are attempting to trap the bear and if not successful, the campground will be closed.

Another example, one that doesn’t involve large predators, comes to us from California, where three campgrounds have been closed because squirrels have been found to be carrying bubonic plague.

A less obvious repercussion of the Utah court ruling could begin to appear should states attempt to ensure they are not establishing a “special relationship” with tax payers. If you may recall, the Utah Supreme Court granted the family of Sam Ives, the boy attacked and killed by the bear, standing to sue the State of Utah holding them also responsible for the boy’s death. That ruling was based on two things: one, that a black bear was not a “natural condition”, or an object that gave the state immunity from liability, and two, that the state had established a “special relationship” with the family.

This “special relationship”, at least how I understood the majority opinion, resulted in the state taking on the responsibility to ensure the safety of the campers and that officials had taken several steps to warn other campers and had spent several hours attempting to locate the bear that attacked the boy. Does this mean the state will not be liable if they do not establish a “special relationship?” How would that change the landscape when it comes to campers, hikers, etc.?

And what is not talked about in relation to this Utah incident is what becomes of the liability issue when the states participate in the introduction, reintroduction of moving of dangerous wild animals?

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