Arguments Made Over Utah’s Liability in Bear Attack

An attorney for the family of a Utah boy killed by a black bear told the state Supreme Court that wildlife officials didn’t do enough to warn them to steer clear of an area where the troublesome bear had been seen earlier.

In a special session of the Utah Supreme Court at the University of Utah, state officials argued immunity on several fronts, including that the bears are a “natural condition” on public land, a distinction that shields the state from liability.

A state judge last year dismissed a negligence suit filed against the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources by the family of Samuel Ives, the 11-year-old who was pulled out of his tent by a black bear in American Fork Canyon in 2007.

The bear had caused problems in the same area earlier that day. The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources called it a “level 3” nuisance bear — considered the most dangerous — and crews set out to find it and kill it. They weren’t immediately unsuccessful but did clear the camp site of anything that might attract the bear again, state officials said.

Ives’ family arrived at the camp site later that day. The attack happened that night.

Attorney Jonah Orlofsky, representing the family, told the court the state should have put up some kind of a warning there was a problem bear in the area. He also said the state should have asked the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land, to close the site.

“If you posted any notice there’d been a bear attack at this site, you end the problem,” he said.

Federal and state officials have previously denied any wrongdoing and noted the difficulty in posting warnings everywhere the bear might be.

Assistant Attorney General Peggy Stone told the court that federal officials were aware of the problem bear and were helping state wildlife crews to track it down.

She also said wildlife should be considered part of a provision that gives the government immunity when someone is hurt resulting from any “natural condition” on public land. Although courts in Utah haven’t specifically said wildlife are part of that “natural condition,” courts in other states have made that connection, she said.

Orlofsky countered by saying that even if bears are part of the natural conditions, state officials took on special duty when it enacted policies to protect the public from “level 3” bears and should have lived up to that responsibility in dealing with bear that eventually attacked Ives.

The court did not immediately rule on the case.