Lawsuit over Hiker’s Death on USFS land

This item was listed in Nick Smith’s HFHC newsletter yesterday. The trailhead in question is a few miles from my home. I walked the footbridge before the USFS stopped installing it each spring. Without the footbridge, hikers must ford the Sandy River, a glacier-fed stream that often is to fast and furious to cross.

The court’s opinion is interesting for its mention of USFS “parking fees” in the form of day-use fees and passes, which I think the USFS has been at pains to avoid calling “parking fees.” Also, an Oregon state law worked in the USFS’s favor: “a property owner is immune from tort liability if it charges a parking fee of less than $15 for use of its land.” Why $15? I have no idea.

CHICAGO — In a case arising from a man’s drowning on U.S. Forest Service property in Oregon, the Seventh Circuit ruled that a $5 pass qualifies as a parking fee of less than $15, and the government is thus immune from tort liability. The man drowned after a logjam ruptured, sending a tall wave and debris at a seasonal bridge across the Sandy River while the man and his friend were crossing.

Read the opinion here.

6 thoughts on “Lawsuit over Hiker’s Death on USFS land”

  1. Hmmm, seems to me that a logjam breaking up in a river is outside of the control of the land managing agency; unless the agency built the jam as in-stream habitat for fish and it failed due to a design flaw.
    The only link to USFS here is that the hikers were on National Forest land and crossing a bridge the agency installed. Unless the bridge failed due to poor maintenance or design I’d say the agency has NO responsibility for this unfortunate accident. — Would someone sue the agency because a landslide occurred during a heavy rain event? They could but I’d hope a court would say the agency had no control over the landslide.
    IMO as a former USFS recreation & trails program manager and a still active hiker I say that this is the type of risk that people take on when they go to the forest. Unfortunately, sometimes accidents happen but that’s part of being in a wild landscape.
    BTW — It’s “National Forest” land that the USFS administers on behalf of the public; NOT “USFS land!” It always bothers me when folks who know the distinction forget about it. I often corrected my FS colleagues.

  2. Reminds me of this case of the flooded campground in Arkansas, though the recreational use and legal issues are different. State law was also a determining factor there (I think such state laws protecting landowners are common, if not universal). Regarding the relationship to fees, this court said plaintiffs, “failed to show the following: … (2) that the government charged persons to enter or go on land in the ARPA (campground) for recreational use.” Even though they paid $16 to stay there. The court said, “Cases construing the ARUS (Arkansas statute) and similar statutes draw a distinction between admission fees for entry onto the land and recreation fees for particular uses, including the use of camping pads and cabins.”

  3. I agree as well with Oldwoodsman. It is interesting that the whole thing seemed to hinge on the amount of the parking fee, but I guess they had to overcome that point before arguing the actual merits of the claim. And it is ironic that the court determined it was a parking fee after FLREA was so carefully crafted so as not to be seen as a parking fee! I wonder if that will have repercussions over the way the fee is structured. Such a tragic situation. I feel for the widow.
    Thanks also for the update on the Arkansas situation, Jon. I had recently arrived in R8 when that tragedy happened. Glad they made the decision not to redevelop it for camping, especially with our climate being even more unpredictable.
    It’s terrible how life can take such a sudden sad turn.

    • You piqued my curiosity to see if/how the court handled the FLREA question. It did:
      “That the Forest Service also satisfied its own statutory requirements by providing all the required amenities listed in § 6802(f)(4)(D) does not preclude the pass from qualifying as a parking pass under Oregon law. In other words, it doesn’t matter that the Forest Service included those five amenities alongside its parking privileges, because the charge was, ultimately, for the privilege of parking.”
      While the Forest Service can’t charge just for parking (which is why they don’t want to call it a “parking pass”), parking is what requires the permit, so it is “parking pass” under state law. But yes, kind of ironic.


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