US Must Face Some Claims Over Yosemite Hantavirus Outbreak

Yosemite National Park’s Half Dome, cloaked in snow. The former Curry Village lies in the famed dome’s shadow. (Photo: William Dotinga)

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The federal government has a duty to protect national park visitors from exposure to dread diseases like hantavirus, a federal judge ruled Wednesday.

In a two-page ruling, U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney allowed parts of a lawsuit arising from an outbreak of the rodent-carried hantavirus at Yosemite National Park in 2012 to go forward, including claims that National Park Service employees negligently failed to place rodent traps or conduct an adequate evaluation of signature tent cabins at Curry Village, now called Half Dome Village.

Several families sued the federal government and park concessionaires in 2013 after an outbreak the prior year killed three and sickened 10 other vacationers staying in the cabins, which are canvas-covered tents boasting a wooden frame, door and flooring.

Chesney’s brief ruling contrasts a hearing Friday on the government’s motion for summary judgment during which she spent hours grilling the Justice Department and cross-claimant Delaware North, which ran the hotels, restaurants and visitor services in Yosemite, on the extent of their knowledge about the mice-infested cabins, and what they should have done about it.

Delaware North filed a cross-claim against the United States, saying that if it is liable for the plaintiffs’ injuries, “the U.S. bears all or part of that fault.”

Justice Department attorney Adam Bain said at Friday’s hearing that the duty to thoroughly inspect the cabin belonged to Delaware North, and the National Park Service’s fire marshal needed only to ensure that the cabins’ doors and windows were sufficiently tight to keep out rodents and insects.

Chesney granted the government’s motion on the negligent inspection claim, as well as its allegedly negligent failure to notify vacationers about the potential exposure to hantavirus.

But she also held that the park service had a duty to protect plaintiffs from hantavirus exposure, and denied the government summary judgment on the negligence claims to the extent that they are based on the park service employees’ alleged failure to set rodent traps and their concessions management specialists’ alleged failure to evaluate the cabins.

Attorneys for both sides did not respond to emails seeking comment.

In separate ruling released later in the day, Chesney partially granted Delaware North’s motion for summary judgment, ruling that the plaintiffs’ products liability, premises liability and warranty claims won’t be heard at trial.

But she allowed plaintiffs to press their fraud, concealment and failure to warn claims against the hotel management company for allegedly neglecting to tell vacationers about the outbreak.

Chesney struggled with the issue last week, saying, “It doesn’t feel like a typical fraud case,” but said Delaware North could have updated its customer service policy to warn renters about potential hantavirus infection.

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