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Young v. United States

United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit

October 17, 2014

DONNA YOUNG; GERALD YOUNG, husband and wife, and as guardians for minor child J.Y., Plaintiffs-Appellants,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, Defendant-Appellee

Argued and Submitted, Seattle, Washington July 11, 2014.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington. D.C. No. 3:11-cv-06043-BHS. Benjamin H. Settle, District Judge, Presiding.

Federal Tort Claims Act

The panel reversed the district court's dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction of a Federal Tort Claims Act action brought against the United States for negligently failing to warn visitors at Mount Rainier National Park of a known hazard.

Donna Young sustained severe injuries when she fell into a twelve-foot-deep hole that had formed underneath the snow near a buried transformer in an area near the Park's main visitor center, and she sued the United States for damages relating to the injuries. The district court dismissed Young's complaint as barred by the discretionary function exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act (" FTCA" ).

The panel held that the National Park Service's decision not to warn of the known hazard was not susceptible to policy considerations, and therefore it was not protected under the discretionary function exception to the FTCA. The panel held that the district court erred in determining, at least at this stage, that it lacked jurisdiction over the case. The panel remanded for further proceedings.

Wayne Mitchell, Anderson & Mitchell PLLC, Seattle, Washington, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Priscilla To-Yin Chan (argued), Assistant United States Attorney; Jenny A. Durkan, United States Attorney, Seattle, Washington, for Defendant-Appellee.

Before: Arthur L. Alarcón, A. Wallace Tashima, and Mary H. Murguia, Circuit Judges. Opinion by Judge Murguia.

OPINION

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MURGUIA, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiffs Donna and Gerald Young and their minor daughter J.Y. appeal the district court's order dismissing their complaint against the United States for negligently failing to warn visitors at Mount Rainier National Park of a hazard that the National Park Service both knew of and created. Donna sustained severe injuries when she fell into a twelve-foot-deep hole that had formed underneath the snow in an area near the Park's main visitor center. The Youngs sued the United States for damages relating to Donna's injuries, but the district court dismissed their complaint for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, finding the action barred by the discretionary function exception to the Federal Tort Claims Act. See 28 U.S.C. § 2680(a). On appeal, the United States maintains that the Park Service's decision not to warn of the hazard was policy-driven--that is, guided by policies relating to access, historic and natural resource preservation, and conservation--and is therefore protected under the discretionary function exception. We conclude that the Park Service's decision not to warn of the known hazard was not susceptible to those policy considerations and therefore is not protected under the exception. Accordingly, we reverse the district court's judgment and remand this case for further proceedings.

I. Facts and Procedural History

Mount Rainier National Park (" the Park" ) was established in 1899 as the fifth national park in the United States. Over 97 percent of the Park's 235,000 acres is dedicated wilderness area, while the remaining three percent includes developed areas such as roadways and visitor centers. In 1997, the entire park was designated as a National Historic Landmark District.

Each year, the Park receives about 1.5 to 2 million visitors, many of whom have little or no experience with alpine environments. Most of those visitors stop at the

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Jackson Visitor Center (JVC), the Park's most popular visitor area, at some point during their stay. The JVC is located in an area of the Park known as " Paradise," which is situated on the southern slope of Mount Rainier and receives an average annual snowfall of 641 inches. In recent years, Paradise has been called " one of the snowiest places on the planet."

When the JVC was constructed in 2008, the National Park Service (NPS or " the Park Service" ) installed a transformer nearby to power the visitor center building. The NPS installed the transformer approximately 150 feet away from the visitor center building in a snowfield across a two-lane road that services the area. According to NPS staff, the area in which the transformer is located is " accessible but it's not attractive," ; " [i]t's not one of the areas that [the NPS] develop[s] and maintain[s] to get people out of the parking lot and onto the snow." The transformer operates year-round, releasing heat as it transfers electricity from nearby power lines to the JVC building.

The snowfield in which the transformer is located often accumulates more snow than other areas of the Park, because the NPS's road-plowing operations deposit snow there during in the winter. As a result, the field generally is covered in snow between November and mid-July. At one point, the area surrounding the transformer was marked with stakes so that the Park's snowplow operator would know where the transformer was located; the Park's staff was afraid that " the weight of the [snowplow], which is considerable, could collapse onto the transformer" underneath the snow. At the time of the incident giving rise to this appeal, there were no warning signs at or near the transformer's location.

Plaintiffs Donna and Gerald Young and their minor daughter J.Y. live in Santa Clara, California. In June 2010, they decided to " explore the Northwest" and travel to Washington. While in Washington they visited Mount Rainier National Park, where they hoped to " look around a little bit" and get their National Park Passport Books stamped at the JVC. They arrived at the Park in the early evening, just before the JVC was scheduled to close.

After the Youngs had parked their car, Donna and J.Y. went into the visitor center, looked around, got their passport books stamped, and then left the JVC to look for Gerald outside. They found Gerald standing in the snowfield across the road, where he was taking pictures of the mountain views. J.Y. walked away from her parents to explore snowfield. While she was exploring, she found a small hole, about two or three inches in diameter, in the snow. She asked Donna to come look at it.

When Donna approached the hole, the snow beneath her collapsed, and she fell approximately twelve feet, landing on a concrete pad on the ground underneath the transformer. According to the NPS Case Incident Record documenting Donna's fall, the transformer's heat had caused the snow above it to " mel[t] out," creating a large cavity beneath a " snow ceiling [that] was thin directly overtop of the transformer." Donna suffered severe injuries as a result of the fall.

Plaintiffs sued the United States under the Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA), which permits individuals to sue the government for money damages to compensate for injuries arising out of the negligent acts of government employees. See 28 U.S.C. ยง 1346(b)(1). In their complaint, Plaintiffs alleged that the NPS negligently failed to warn Plaintiffs of a known, latent hazard (the ...


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