Widowmaker Branch Killed Camper, Dad Says

     CHICAGO (CN) – A camp counselor hung 200 pounds of food from the branch of a dead pine tree, and the “widowmaker” fell onto and killed a girl, her father claims in Federal Court.
     Michael Burns, on behalf of Elizabeth Burns, sued Wilderness Ventures Inc. in the Northern District of Illinois.
     “On June 22, 2011, Sally Burns, mother, on behalf of minor Elizabeth Burns, contracted with defendant Wilderness Ventures, for one position on the Grand Teton trip occurring July 6, 2011 through August 6, 2011,” Burns says.
     Two Wilderness Ventures counselors would supervise the 13 minor campers as they hiked and camped the Teton National Forest in Wyoming, according to the complaint.
     “Prior to the July 16, 2011 trip, defendant Wilderness Ventures knew or, in the exercise of ordinary care, should have known that the Teton National Forest had lodge pole pine tress and that an infestation of the pine beetle had killed about 40 to 50 percent of the lodge pole pine trees,” Burns says. “Many of the lodge pole pine tress had been dead for in excess of five years; were needle-less; de-barked; shiny and smooth.
     “Lodge pole pine trees have no tap root, and only surface roots. Dead trees in this condition were referred to as ‘widow makers’ for their propensity to topple.”
     The U.S. Forest Service says the pine beetle has destroyed thousands of acres of pine forest in Colorado and Wyoming, and warns visitors that beetle-killed trees can fall at any time without notice.
     Tragedy struck the campers as they were setting up a cook site and tent area on July 18, 2011, after hiking east of the Turpin Meadows. Wilderness employees Darrow Feldstein and Alix Always selected the site, according to the complaint.
     “On July 18, 2011, at the aforesaid campsite, defendant Wilderness Ventures employee, Darrow Felstein, selected a 75′ dead lodge pole pine tree to suspend food and other smelly items,” Burns says.
     “On July 18, 2011, at the aforesaid campsite, while searching for a tree to suspend food, defendant’s employees, Darrow Feldstein and Alix Alway, and each of them, knew or in the exercise of ordinary care should have known, that a similar size dead lodge pole pine tree had toppled and was laying on the ground about 50 feet from the selected tree.
     “On July 18, 2011, from the aforesaid dead tree, about 200 pounds of food and other smelly items in numerous bags were being hoisted to 10 feet above ground by ropes to be suspended from the same branch located on the side of the tree facing the cook site.”
     Burns says a loud crack sounded as members of the group hoisted the second 100 pounds of bags to the branch, under the chaperones’ supervision.
     “After the first audible crack occurred, no instruction to stop the second hoisting of food bags or to clear the area was given by Darrow Feldstein or Alix Always,” according to the complaint.
     “While members of the group continued to hoist the second 100 pounds of food bags, a second louder crack occurred and the tree was pulled down and fell in the direction that the bags were placed.
     “The pulled downed tree struck plaintiff’s minor, Elizabeth Burns, in the head and torso causing her to be injured.”
     Burns says the falling branch caused his daughter to suffer injuries that led to her death that day.
     He seeks damages for wrongful death, negligence, and willful and wanton conduct.
     Burns is represented by Francis Murphy of Corboy & Demetrio.

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