For awhile now I have reported on certain incidences of law suits against the government claiming they are liable when large predators attack people. Last month I put together an article highlighting some of the events that have occurred that have resulted in lawsuits being filed or the threat of such.
Perhaps the most prominent of all these stories happened in 2007 when Sam Ives, while camping with his parents in the Uinta National Forest. Ives was hauled from his tent in the middle of the night by a black bear [this was edited to correct an error stating the bear was a grizzly], dragged into the forest and was killed. See the details here.
As tragic as that story is of itself, perhaps the real tragedy came when officials did not alert this family that the campground had been closed due to the presence of this bear. The family has filed a lawsuit claiming that because of the circumstances, the employees of the government were negligent in doing their jobs.
There is a bit more to this than a mere claim of negligence. In a court appeal, Francis v. State of Utah, the Utah Supreme Court ruled that wildlife are not a “natural condition of the land.” What this essentially means is that most states have some kind of immunity clause or law that protects the governments from lawsuits of this kind. In Utah, that immunity clause happens to contain language dealing with “natural conditions of the land.” The immunity applies, according the Utah Supreme Court, on things that are considered “natural” and evidently grizzly bears and other wildlife are not considered “natural.” What is not clear is exactly why but the notion that wildlife is “managed” and/or “protected” probably has a lot to do with it.
If that be the case, then is their liability in existence when all wildlife is “managed” and “protected?”
The horrors for some people that have existed since the introduction of wolves into the Greater Yellowstone area, portions of Central Idaho, New Mexico and Arizona, have brought much debate about whether or not Government is liable for property damage, economic damage and personal injury or the dreaded revelation of a wolf attack resulting in the death of a human.
The Utah case may set a precedent in this regard. Simply that the Utah Supreme Court has determined that wildlife are not a “natural condition of the land,” is it stretching the truth at all to assume that human transplanted wildlife, i.e. vicious predators like wolves and grizzly bears, would qualify as an expansion of that liability?
In some cases for some people, it would seem this immunity issue and how it applies to wildlife, would be a good thing, but I’m not so sure it will for most. Take for example a woman in California who is suing the owners of cemetery plot because while she was visiting her mother’s grave, she was attacked by a coyote. She is claiming, “various severe and permanent injuries.” She claims the company was negligent and liable.
Is the company liable for a coyote attack? Not knowing all the laws governing a person’s right to protection, including the ability of the cemetery company to ensure coyotes won’t attack customers, it is difficult to understand where any liability might start in this case. What are all the extenuating circumstances leading up to the attack? If it were possible to bring suit against a private company for a wild animal attack, isn’t it just as plausible to claim that the government, whose responsibility it is to “manage” wildlife, is more responsible than the cemetery company? One would think so, but then we have to deal with these government immunity laws.
What a can of worms!
I am of the opinion that government immunity should not prevail when, in cases like Sam Ives, negligence appears to have played a role in the young man’s death. Outright negligence by any person or organization should never be protected. I have often wondered if the employees who knew Sam Ives and his family went into that campground after it had been closed and did nothing about it, would have acted and reacted differently if they knew they would be held liable?
It will be interesting to watch to see if this unfolds further and to see if it will have any impact on how wildlife is managed, species that are protected and further plans for introducing large predators into a landscape populated by humans.