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Judge allows grizzly bear mauling suit to proceed

A federal district court judge in Cheyenne has rejected the federal government’s claim that it’s immune from being sued over the fatal 2010 grizzly bear mauling of a Illinois man, allowing the case to go forward.

On June 17, 2010, Erwin F. Evert was apparently killed by a 430-pound grizzly bear that was recovering from federal researchers’ tranquilizers in the Shoshone National Forest, just east of Yellowstone National Park. The 70-year-old botanist and his wife owned a cabin about a mile from the site and lived there seasonally for several decades.

His wife, Yolanda Evert, is pursuing a $5 million wrongful death claim against the government. She contends members of the federal Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team negligently took down warning signs and left before the bear they’d tranquilized was fully ambulatory — both in violation of bear trapping protocols.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Cheyenne had argued that a Wyoming law indemnifying landowners who allow the public to freely recreate on their property gave the government immunity from the suit. The government asked for the case to be dismissed.

However, in a decision issued Wednesday, District Court Judge Nancy Freudenthal noted the Wyoming Recreational Use Act does not limit liability if the landowner “willfully” failed to guard or warn against a dangerous activity or condition. Freudenthal said the allegations brought by Yolanda Evert are enough for the case to move forward toward a trial, where the facts would be meted out.

If Yolanda Evert’s allegations are assumed to be true, “This is not a case where the United States merely knew of a dangerous forest condition or of certain activities that were occurring in the forest,” Freudenthal wrote. “Rather, the United States’ policies, permits and warning protocols display actual knowledge by government agents of the specific risk of mauling inherent in baiting, trapping, handling, and releasing research grizzly bears.

“A grizzly bear mauling would be a great risk presented to an unsuspecting, recreating person who encounters a research grizzly bear recovering from having been trapped, immobilized and handled,” Freudenthal wrote.

That was in agreement with the argument made by Yolanda Evert’s attorneys, Emily Rankin and Mark Aronowitz of the Spence Law Firm.

According to a federal report on the incident, Erwin Evert knew the study team was trapping bears in the general area — having come across a warning sign at a different site a week earlier and having been warned by a friend that trapping was likely taking place.

Before he hiked up to the site where he was killed by the bear, Evert told his daughter that he was hoping to “catch up with the guys [the bear researchers] to find out what was going on,” the federal report says.

However, Evert had never seen warning signs at the site where he was killed, and they were removed shortly before he left for his hike, the report says. The signs the researchers took with them when they left the site said the area was closed until June 20 — three days later, according to Yolanda Evert’s complaint.

One of the two men who conducted the bear trapping on June 17 later told government investigators that they pulled the warning signs and left because they didn’t think anyone would be coming that way and hadn’t seen anyone in that area off the main trail in weeks of work.

With Freudenthal rejecting the government’s request for a dismissal, the U.S. Attorney’s Office now must file an answer to Evert’s complaint.

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1 comment

  • posted by Dave Smith

    February 24, 2012 2:18 pm

    It's ironic that Evert got killed by researchers using stone age techniques to guesstimate the Yellowstone grizzly bear population. The $5 million lawsuit the government is sure to lose would have paid for a scientific DNA population study that told us how many grizzlies inhabit the Yellowstone region.

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