Allegations of negligence are part of a $270 million wrongful death claim against the National Park Service after an accident in Utah’s Arches National Park earlier this year.
In June, Esther Nakajjigo was decapitated when high winds blew an unsecured metal gate closed, unexpectedly cutting through the car she was riding in with her husband.
The claim says Arches should have secured the gate with a lock, thereby preventing it from swinging out into traffic. According to the victim’s family, a lawsuit is forthcoming.
“In theory, you can sue the National Parks Service for a death that occurs due to negligence,” said Teneille Brown, a professor of law at the University of Utah.
Historically, the federal government has to agree to be sued under the doctrine of sovereign immunity. But the Federal Tort Claims Act of the 1940s waived some of that immunity, when the government is sued for negligence.
Even then, Brown said, it’s a narrow legal path. Courts limited the negligence exception by refusing to permit cases against the feds if the wrongful act is considered part of a discretionary or policy function.
This has been interpreted broadly to include decisions like whether trailheads in National Parks should warn hikers of steep falls — and fatal mountain goat attacks.
“Not having a lock or a padlock or a latch on the gate to keep it from swinging in the wind, if that can be described as a discretionary function of the federal government, then the waiver of liability or waiver of immunity no longer applies,” Brown explained, meaning the federal government would be protected from the suit.
Brown says these types of cases are typically settled before they reach trial.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.