Feds set "terrible precedent' with Kolob Canyon settlement

  The survivors of an outing that left two Explorer Scout leaders dead in Utah's Kolob Canyon will get more than $2 million from an out-of-court settlement with public agencies. David Fleischer and LeRoy Kim Ellis drowned in July 1993 while descending a narrow slot canyon near Zion National Park. A surviving Scout leader, four of the five Explorer Scouts and the families of the dead men later sued the National Park Service and the Washington County Water Conservancy District for $24.5 million. Their lawsuit claimed the Scouts should have been warned about high-water conditions (HCN, 8/22/94).

According to Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephen Sorenson, the Park Service, which paid survivors $1.49 million, could have gone to court with a strong defense since the Scouts failed to call off the trip when they found the creek running high. Outdoor leader and writer Charles Cook told the Salt Lake Tribune that the out-of-court settlement created a "terrible precedent," and he predicted copycat lawsuits the next time a hike ends in tragedy.

But Denny Davies, chief naturalist at Zion National Park, said that without a trial, "there is no legal precedent." Water Conservancy District officials, who paid survivors $750,000, were quick to add that the settlement was not an admission of liability.

The case could lead to stricter control of backcountry use on public lands. Washington County water manager Ronald Thompson said that the district may have to close some areas to the public. "If public (lands) are to be made available to the public, individuals who use these lands ... must take responsibility for themselves and their own safety."

*Greg Hanscom