July 22, 2019

Law Suit: Company Was Negligent and Liable for Coyote Attack

coyotecemeteryFor 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.

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Are States Liable for “Dangerous” Wildlife?

The Utah Supreme Court has ruled in Francis v. State of Utah that wildlife are not a “natural condition on the land.” First, some brief history that led up to Francis v. State of Utah and then an explanation.

On June 16, 2007, one Jake Francom was camping with friends in Uinta National Forest when he was attacked by a black bear. He was not seriously injured. Consequently, officials from the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR) determined by employing established bear policy that the bear needed to be found and killed. Attempts to locate the bear failed immediately.

Officials did not close the campsite where Francom was attacked, nor did they put up signs. They intended to return the next morning and set up a trap. After a final inspection of the campsite, the two DWR employees drove away and on the way out met a car of campers coming in. They waived and made no attempt to stop or warn the campers.

In that car of campers was 11-year-old Sam Ives. Sam and family ended up camping at the same site where Francom had been attacked. The same bear returned to this campsite later that night, dragging Sam Ives from his tent and killing him. The family has successfully sued the Federal Government and are now in the process of suing the State of Utah. The latest ruling coming from the Utah Supreme Court.

At issue here is whether or not the State of Utah is immune from liability as was the ruling from a lower court. The Utah Supreme Court has overturned the lower ruling, essentially declaring that the family of Sam Ives can go ahead with suing the State of Utah. It will be up to a court to decide whether or not the State of Utah was negligent in the death of Sam Ives. My question becomes one of what precedent is being set in this ruling in Francis v. State of Utah.

The State of Utah claims it is immunized from liability due to Utah Governmental Immunity Act, Utah code section
63G-7-301(5)(c). The District Court ruled in favor of the State interpreting that the Immunity Act protected the State from liability in the Sam Ives’ death suit. The Utah Supreme Court has overturned that ruling.

According to the Immunity Act, the State of Utah claims immunity based upon the fact that they believe a wild black bear is a “natural condition on the land” or “any natural condition on publicly owned or controlled lands.” The Utah Supreme Court disagrees with that interpretation, stating in the majority opinion of Francis v. State of Utah, that wildlife is not a “natural condition on the land” and define this “natural condition on the land” as having to be “topographical”, i.e. rivers, mountains, landslides, etc. and not wildlife.

Does this ruling present a different playing field when it comes to liability to the governments over damages to property and attacks on humans? It may just do that, but in order for that to be considered here, I think one would have to look at the entire Supreme Court ruling on this issue because in the ruling it is taken as a whole as well.

Where it has been determined in Utah that wildlife is not a “natural condition” and doesn’t automatically immunize the State from liability, I think just as important is Part II of what the Supreme Court also overturned; whether or not the State had a “duty” to protect the family of Sam Ives or any other group or individual, such as campers.

While a blanket of liability to the State can’t be cast over every attack on a human by any wildlife species, consideration has to be given as to whether the state has a duty to perform that protection, according to the ruling in Francis v. State of Utah.

The Utah Supreme Court in this ruling determined that the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources had a duty to protect Sam Ives due to the establishment of a “special relationship.” The court used the following criteria in making that determination:

(1) by a statute intended to protect a specific class of persons of which the plaintiff is a member from a
particular type of harm; (2) when a government agent undertakes specific action to protect a person or property; (3) by governmental actions that reasonably induce detrimental reliance by a member of the public; and (4) under certain circumstances, when the agency has actual custody of the plaintiff or of a third person who causes harm to the plaintiff.

In layman’s terms, the question should be asked, if the state knowingly has a dangerous wild animal, i.e. a bear, a wolf or coyote, etc. and is making the effort to do what they can to protect the public, or ranchers, campers, hikers, and serious injury or death occurs, as with Sam Ives, can the state be sued? It appears to me that they can and rightly should be especially when a government agency knowingly and purposefully places dangerous wildlife where humans travel and a person gets injured or killed.

It will be interesting to see how this ruling will affect others in their decision of whether or not to sue the State of Utah for wildlife encounters and how this applies now and in the future with other states.

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