Death by grizzly bear not the federal government’s fault

A hiker out for a stroll in the Wyoming woods in 2010 had no idea he was walking into a bear research zone operated by the U.S. Government. The 70 year-old man came face to face with a grizzly which, just hours before, had been trapped, fitted with a radio collar, and set free by government researchers. The enraged animal mauled the hiker to death. Now, a federal judge has rejected a $5 million wrongful death lawsuit filed by the victim’s widow, ruling that the government is not at fault.

The hiker and his wife had a private vacation cabin in the Shoshone National Forest. Unbeknown to them, grizzly bear researchers were working nearby. The scientists put up warning signs while they were catching, collaring, and releasing bears. After the project was finished, the team removed the warning signs, believing that no one would be hiking in the area because the weather was bad. The victim went for a walk anyway, despite the weather.

The judge relied on a Wyoming law that says property owners, including the government, have no obligation to warn others about dangerous conditions, usage, structures, or activities as long as the land owner doesn’t charge a fee for recreational use. The court also heard testimony from federal and state investigators who found that the victim was aware of the bear trapping area and had been warned by a friend to stay out of the woods. Still, the judge decided that there was no evidence that the victim knew he was at risk of a mauling.

The widow claimed that the federal government had an obligation to leave the warnings in place. As for the bear, the male grizzly was located shortly after killing the man and shot to death from a helicopter. The key to this case is the Wyoming law. Had this happened in another state with less liberal liability laws, the widow may have been able to collect.

Source: Reuters, “Judge rules for U.S. government in fatal Wyoming bear attack,” Laura Zuckerman, Oct. 26, 2012