An out-of-court settlement with one of the two defendant agencies has delayed a trial that had been scheduled to begin Tuesday in the 1993 drowning deaths of two hikers in Kolob Canyon.
The Washington County Water Conservancy District agreed late last week to pay the families of Kim Ellis and David Fleischer an undisclosed amount to avoid what was expected to be a long and expensive trial in U.S. District Court.The settlement derailed the impaneling of a jury in the case because the remaining defendant, the U.S. government, is generally not subject to jury trials. Depending upon the outcome of ongoing settlement negotiations with the government, Judge J. Thomas Greene will hear the case beginning Friday.
Citing a confidentiality clause, neither the water district nor the attorney for the families would disclose the terms of the settlement. However, family attorney Robert S. Clark said he was "very pleased" with the settlement.
Water district officials have indicated their insurance company will cover the loss. They referred all other questions to their lawyer, Robert Wright, who was unavailable for comment Tuesday morning.
In their lawsuit, the Ellis and Fleischer families contend that when Zion National Park rangers issued the men's hiking group a back-country permit on July 14, 1993, they had an obligation to warn them of the release of a large amount of water from the water district's Kolob Reservoir.
The rising water caught the hikers in an extremely narrow area called Slot Canyon, sweeping them downstream. Ellis and Fleischer drowned, and the others were stranded for five days.
According to their families, the National Park Service was aware of the release of water but took no action to stop or warn the hikers even after group leaders repeatedly asked about water conditions. Their lawyers argued that policies did exist requiring park personnel to warn the group.
During a pretrial hearing in April, the government's lawyers asked Greene to dismiss the case because the federal government is immune from lawsuits arising from the "discretionary conduct" of employees.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Carlie Christensen argued that while National Park Service policies establish a "general duty to promote safety," park rangers cannot be expected to inform millions of park visitors of "every conceivable hazard."
She also argued that if the government were held liable for all hazards in national parks, business "would come to a halt," Christensen said.
National groups that promote outdoor adventures have expressed similar concerns, saying an adverse ruling could lead to a ban or severe curtailment of such activities in the national parks.