Liability for Injuries Caused by Animals

Mountain Goat

When you are enjoying a National Park or other public area and are injured by the local wildlife, should you sue the Federal government for damages?

A Mountain Goat Attack

In 2010 a man was hiking in Olympic National Park when he came upon a mountain goat.  The aggressive goat gored him then stood over him keeping his hiking companions away while he bled to death.

If that was the end of the story,  there isn’t really anything to sue over.  The goat lives there, was behaving like a goat, the hikers knew they could expect to see dangerous animals and that if they got too close they could be injured.  There are risks in outdoor recreation and they are an accepted part of the outdoor experience.  That’s why you don’t hear much about those gored by bison at Yellowstone suing the Park for damages and medical bills.

Official Discretion

In addition Park officials have legally recognized discretion in deciding how to manage wildlife.  Thus the officials are insulated from legal action.  Managing bison in Yellowstone involves letting the bison be bison while training visitors to understand and respect them and the dangers they provide.  They also create rules that, if visitors obey them, will greatly reduce the chances of an unpleasant bison encounter.

The Back Story

The mountain goat in Olympic National Park has a back story.  It seems that particular goat was known to be unusually aggressive and had been threatening visitors and Park employees for years.  In many places an individual bear or mountain lion that behaved badly around humans would be relocated or killed, but that didn’t happen here.  So, the man’s wife sued the Federal government arguing that Park employees were negligent because they had done nothing to separate the goat from people.

Legal Wrangling

The U.S. District Court in Tacoma, Washington, dismissed the case citing the discretion that government employees are allowed in the way they manage natural resources, including wildlife.  The victim’s wife appealed that decision to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals and a three judge panel upheld the dismissal on a 2 to 1 vote for the same reason, based upon well-established legal precedent.

The story could end there, by maybe not.  One of the majority judges decided on the basis of precedent, but acknowledged the dissenting judge’s remark that “our jurisprudence in this area has gone off the rails.”  The lawyers involved may request a hearing with the full panel of 9th Circuit judges to see if they can get a vote in their favor.

It’s not likely the full court will overturn the dismissal given the strength of precedent in the legal system, but it’s possible.  If the dismissal is not overturned,  an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court is possible, but, again, not very likely.  When legal maneuverings are exhausted,  only Congress can change the laws and allow cases like this to be heard.

What Do You Think?

Should the Federal government (i.e. you as a taxpayer) be forced to pay damages in incidents like this?  If you are reading this outside of our blog,  click on over to the Explore Blog and offer your opinion in the comments section below.

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One Response to “Liability for Injuries Caused by Animals”

  1. David says:

    Quite frankly, my fellow Americans are not very good at making decisions involving safety when such lead to sacrificing not getting a desired experience or photograph. This is because the onus of self-regulation has not been emphasized when being brought up. I encountered a European view of Americans when I was touring a castle in Italy where rails were missing and a tourist could easily fall over the edge. When I mentioned that the owner of the castle could be sued, the self-identified Italian next to me stated that the laws in Italy prevented a person consciously doing less than safe activities from getting rewarded when incurring injured doing such (oh yes, this was preceded by, “You are an American, aren’t you?”).

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