May 24, 2019

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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