Young v. U.S. – Federal Park Hazard Injury Lawsuit Proceeds

Suing a local government entity is accompanied by a unique set of legal hurdles. Suing the federal government for injury can have mountainous hurdles.
Bu that doesn’t mean a case isn’t ever worth pursuing, as Young v. United States recently revealed. Here, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granted plaintiffs the right to continue their case under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), after a woman suffered serious injuries after she fell into a deep hole formed underneath the snow near a buried transformer in a national park, close to the main visitor center. She alleged the National Park Service knew of the danger because it had created it and failed to warn visitors.

Although the lower court dismissed the claim as barred under the discretionary function exception under FTCA, the appellate court flatly rejected this defense. Justices called the decision not to warn “totally divorced” from any other policy consideration except the one the park service should have upheld: the safety of some 2 million visitors who patronize the park every year.

Our Asheville personal injury lawyers recognize although this case stemmed from an injury at Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, it’s relevant to those of us here in North Carolina, as there are a host of national parks and historic sites. Those include:

  • Appalachian National Scenic Trail
  • Blue Ridge Parkway
  • Blue Ridge Heritage Area
  • Cape Hatteras National Seashore
  • Cape Lookout National Seashore
  • Carl Sandburg Home
  • Fort Raleigh
  • Great Smokey Mountains National Park
  • Moores Creek Battlefield
  • Overmountain Victory Historic Trail
  • Trail of Tears National Historic Trail

An injury occurring at one of these parks is not enough to establish a case against the government. As with any other premises liability case, one has to show the government owed a duty of care to the patron and breached that duty, which resulted in proximate injury. That means the element that resulted in injury has to have been created or at least known about by park rangers, who either did not address the hazard or take reasonable steps to warn patrons of it.

One must also contend with the provisions of FTCA.

In this case, park administrators allowed for the installation of a transformer near the primary visitor center of the park, which is a destination point for most visitors at some part of their visit. The area on which the center is situated has been referred to as “one of the snowiest places on earth.” The center was installed in 2008, with the transformer following soon after, about 150 feet away from the visitor center.

The area where the transformer is situated is accessible to visitors, but “not attractive,” and park personnel didn’t encourage people to walk in that area. The transformer operates year-round, releasing heat while transferring electricity to the nearby visitor center. But when the area is covered with snow, between November and July, a large cavity formed beneath the hole. At one point, stakes were put up so the snowplow operator knew to avoid the area. However, at the time of plaintiff’s fall, no stakes marked the spot.

At the spot where plaintiff fell, it was 12-feet deep with a concrete pad at the bottom. Plaintiff, while visiting the park with her husband and minor daughter, sustained severe injuries as a result of the fall when she stepped unsuspectingly on the snow immediately above the hole.

Plaintiffs sued under FTCA, which allows monetary compensation for injuries arising out of negligent acts of government employees. Complaint alleges the park service workers failed to warn of a latent hazard the service created. They sought damages for physical injuries, medical costs, economic losses, pain, suffering and loss of consortium.

The government moved to dismiss on grounds claim was barred by discretionary function exception, which is an exception from the waiver of immunity set forth in FTCA. The waiver allows that if a worker fails to perform a discretionary function while on duty with a government agency, the government can’t be held accountable (even if it’s determined discretion was abused). In other words, was the negligent conduct a matter of choice for the acting discretionary, or was it a matter of policy?

The district court believed it discretionary and granted dismissal, but the appellate court reversed. The appellate court found the lower court had framed the question too broadly. While the park service doesn’t have a duty to warn of natural features, this was a hazard it created and knew about, and that visitors could not have easily discovered.

Therefore, the case was remanded back to the lower court for trial.

Contact the North Carolina injury lawyers at the Lee Law Offices by calling 800-887-1965.

Additional Resources:
Young v. United States, Oct. 17, 2014, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit

More Blog Entries:
North Carolina Man Dies in Rafting Accident, Oct. 2, 2014, Asheville Injury Lawyer Blog

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