The tenth anniversary of the sudden death of Steve Irwin has renewed attention toward the dangers that can be posed by seemingly ordinary wildlife in their natural surroundings. While you may not have much legal recourse if you're injured by a stingray while snorkeling in public waters or a deer or elk while driving down the highway, being injured in a public park or nature preserve could potentially present you with a few more options—especially if your injury was due to negligence by park staff or even a fellow camper. Read on to learn more about your legal rights if you're injured by a wild animal in a public park or nature preserve.
When may you have a viable legal claim for an injury in a public park?
The federal government, as well as state and local governments, are generally immune from lawsuits under a concept known as sovereign immunity. This doctrine is designed to allow government officials to do their jobs and be protected from the need to constantly defend themselves against lawsuits from individuals who have had unsatisfying interactions with certain agencies or divisions. However, the federal government and most states have carved out some exceptions to the sovereign-immunity doctrine that can allow you to sue a government entity under certain circumstances.
One area in which sovereign immunity may be waived is employee (or management) negligence. While park employees and managers aren't able to control the actions of wild animals, they do have the responsibility to keep the park in a safe condition—so any injuries you suffer from falling through a rotten bridge board and being bitten by a water snake may be legally attributed to the park's negligence. By that same measure, a failure by park management to attempt to eradicate (or warn visitors of) a rabies outbreak among raccoons in the area could be deemed negligent if a visitor is bitten or scratched by an overly aggressive animal.
For nature preserves where visitors are encouraged to get close to the animals, preserve management can walk a fine line between allowing customers to have genuine interactions and ensuring that no injuries or accidental deaths take place. If you're injured by an animal after consenting to an up-close-and-personal interaction, you'll need to show that the animal's actions were either provoked by preserve staff or easily predictable and overlooked.
If your injury was instead caused (either directly or indirectly) by a fellow visitor or camper's actions, you may have to file a personal-injury claim against that individual rather than the park. You'll need enough evidence to prove that the other person's actions led to your injuries to fulfill a "preponderance of the evidence" standard. This is less than the "beyond a reasonable doubt" standard used for criminal cases but still a fairly tough burden to shoulder if there were few (or no) witnesses and little photographic or video evidence.
What situations may prevent you from recovering if you're injured in a park or nature preserve?
In some cases, you may simply be unable to gather enough evidence to mount a strong claim. Although many personal-injury attorneys will take cases like this on a contingency basis, only charging you if (and when) you win, this means they can be more selective about the cases they take on, and if yours doesn't seem easily winnable, you may have trouble finding counsel to take on your case.
If you're suing an individual person rather than a park or nature preserve, you'll also want to do some preliminary investigation to ensure they have sufficient assets (or insurance coverage) to make a lawsuit worthwhile. Suing someone who is unemployed or has no assets can be an exercise in futility, and the hassle and expense of filing a lawsuit may not be justified by your potential recovery even if you do win.
For more personalized information about whether you have a case, talk to a personal-injury firm such as Vaughan & Vaughan.