Lawsuits filed Friday against state and federal wildlife officials demand that the family of Sam Ives be paid at least $2.1 million for his death from a bear attack.
Ives, 11, was killed by a black bear on June 17, 2007, while camping with his family about a mile above the Timpooneke Campground in American Fork Canyon. He was ripped from his room in a module tent he had bought his stepfather for Father's Day, before being dragged off and killed. The bear was eventually found and killed as well, and was confirmed to be the same animal that had entered the campsite the night before and rummaged through food coolers.
The black bear was classified as a Level III animal, which means that it should be euthanized, and wildlife officials did attempt to find the bear after its first appearance but were unsuccessful.
The suits allege that since the bear was unable to be found, campers should have been notified and the campground closed. The family said Friday that they are experienced campers well aware of the risks, but had they known of the bear they never would have stayed in the area just 15 minutes from their home.
"If there wasn't an attack the night before, we wouldn't be here arguing it," said Ives's biological father Kevan Francis.
The family claims that there were two chances for the state to warn them of the bear danger. The first was when they went through the gate to get to the campground. The second chance was a little more eerie.
"The family passed a Division of Wildlife Resources truck, [that] apparently was the one looking for the bear. They waved at them," said the plaintiff's attorney Allen Young.
State officials have denied any wrongdoing, saying they followed their bear policy. That policy has been under review since the June attack and could see some "minor" tweaks, according to Kevin Bunnell, mammals coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Resources.
The state lawsuit calls for compensation exceeding $100,000, though state law limits the amount to no more than about $550,000. The federal lawsuit asks for at least $2 million. The multiple lawsuits are because the campground is on federal land, but wildlife is under the state's purview.
Successful lawsuits against the government over similar circumstances aren't unheard of.
In 1996, a bear mauled an Arizona teenager after dragging her out of a tent. The bear had previously been removed from the area but returned on its own. The state settled for $2.5 million with the now-paralyzed teen and her family. Utah's own Black Bear Management Plan cites the case, noting that Arizona's bear plan was changed because of the incident.
"The fact that the state of Arizona is claiming responsibility for the bear's action may be setting a worrisome precedent," the plan reads.
While worrisome, Utah's bear policy is substantially different from Arizona's in that it is discretionary, said assistant attorney general Martin Bushman, who added that by being discretionary, it protects the state's immunity.
"It's all written in 'shoulds' and 'mays,' " he said.
He cites case law from a 1992 bear attack in which a federal court ruled in favor of Utah's policy. In that case, 9-year-old Krystal Gadd was torn from a camper trailer near Strawberry Reservoir by a 400-pound black bear and was saved only when her grandfather caught up with the animal and beat it off with a flashlight.
"What they found first was that the Division of Wildlife Resources had no legal duty to warn the public of bear dangers," Bushman said, and that even if there was a duty, the government would be immune because of the policy's discretionary language.
While bear attacks do happen, they are still rare given the number of people interacting with wildlife. For example, there are just two or three attacks each year in Alaska where there are 150,000 bears, said BYU wildlife biology professor Tom Smith, who spent a decade there studying the animals.
Smith, an expert on bear/human interaction, said there have been just six human fatalities in 125 years in Alaska caused by black bears. Sam Ives's death is thought to be the first by a black bear in Utah history.
"They're extremely reluctant to engage in conflicts with humans," he said of bears.
And though Sam's family did a good job of keeping food out of their camping area, a bear that habituates itself to human food can develop a Pavlovian response not just to the smell of food, but the smell of people, Smith said.
"That's the trigger for feeding," he said.
The death of Sam Ives affected many people around the valley and prompted the construction of a permanent bench made of wood and LEGOs by his friends, and a group of trees at Pleasant Grove's Manila Tank Park known as "Sam's Grove."
His family clearly continues to struggle with his death. On Friday, Francis sat stone-faced while Sam's mother, Rebecca Ives, cried through much of a news conference. Sam's stepfather, Tim Mulvey, sat next to his wife comforting her while expressing frustration and grief with their lives since the attack.
"This is our everyday here," he said.
One way to blunt the pain is their suggestion of a "Sam Alert" in which wildlife officials would be required to tell campers of nearby bears or even close down campgrounds. The latter was done several times last year, as the county experienced a rash of black bear sightings. DWR officials have also been working to replace old campground Dumpsters with a bear-proof variant, as well as launching an education campaign with Boy Scouts and other groups.
State and federal lawyers now have 30 days to respond to the lawsuits.
Tim Mulvey is an employee of the Daily Herald.