Friday, September 22, 2023
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Feds May Be Liable for Nasty Mt. Rainier Fall

(CN) - A woman who fell into a snow-covered sinkhole at Mount Rainier National Park can pursue negligence claims against the U.S. government, the 9th Circuit ruled Friday.

Donna Young, a resident of Santa Clara, Calif., says she was visiting the notoriously snowy Washington park in June 2010 with her family when she followed her daughter into snowfield near the Jackson Visitor Center.

Young fell about 12 feet into an unmarked hole under the snow, landing on a concrete pad beneath a transformer.

The National Park Service (NPS) often uses the field to deposit excess snow plowed from other areas, and it's usually covered with snow from November through mid-July. An NPS incident report on the fall says heat from the transformer had melted a cavity in the snow pile and left only a thin layer of snow on top, according to the ruling.

The Jackson Visitor Center (JVC) is located on the southern slope of Mount Rainier, in an area of the national park called "Paradise" that gets some 641 inches, or about 53 feet, of snow every year.

Seriously injured by the fall, Young and her husband filed suit in Tacoma. They alleged that the Park Service should have warned visitors about the hazard, which it knew about and created.

U.S. District Judge Benjamin Settle dismissed the case straightaway, however, after finding that the decision not to mark the transformer was "policy-driven." The NPS typically has wide discretion in making policies to preserve historic and natural resources and manage visitor access.

Reviving the Young's claims in a unanimous reversal on Friday, a three-judge panel with the 9th Circuit said that this case involves only one consideration, visitor safety, which the NPS "appears to have ignored."

Policy-driven decisions immune from tort claims are usually about "whether to warn of dangers that exist naturally in ... national parks" and "preserv[ing] historical features of the lands," according to the ruling.

"The NPS's decision not to warn of the latent dangers associated with the transformer near the JVC was a decision 'totally divorced' from the policies that the government has identified as the basis for its decision," Judge Mary Murguia wrote for the appellate panel in Seattle.

"This is also not a decision susceptible to policy matters such as historic or natural resource preservation," Murguia added.

The panel sent the couple's claims back to Tacoma for further consideration.

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