Court Holds U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Accountable for the Negligence of Its Employees

Aug 27, 2010

The California Supreme Court has held that National Parks and other recreational areas will be held accountable if the negligence of their workers leads to the injury of a park visitor.
The decision is expected to have broad implications for such federal entities, which some of criticized for not emphasizing enough safety to their employees.
The case involved Alan Klein, who was riding his bicycle for recreational purposes in a mountainous region of the Angeles National Forest in the Los Angeles area. Klein was struck head-on by an automobile driven by a person working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The employee was on his way to observe condors for the agency when the accident occurred. As a result, Klein suffered catastrophic injuries.
The Court noted that California “has a strong interest in promoting the safe driving of motor vehicles and in preventing or minimizing personal injuries resulting from motor vehicle accidents.” The decision “furthers these interests by encouraging property owners and their employees to drive safely on their lands so as to reduce collisions with, and injuries to, persons engaged in recreational activities on those lands.”
Given the California Supreme Court’s reputation, some suggest the ruling could heavily influence other state and federal courts. “The rulings of California’s highest court are by far the most followed of any state supreme court in the United States,” said David G. Jones, a partner in the Woodland Hills, California-based law firm of Santiago, Rodnunsky & Jones, which represented Klein.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which issued the ruling that led to the latest appeal, a panel of judges wrote: “It is of no small moment that the federal government owns millions of acres of National Park and National Forest land within the state of California. Shielding the United States from liability for the negligent driving, and possibly for other negligent acts, of its employees on all of these lands may have substantial and negative consequences for the many residents of and visitors to California who make use of federal lands for recreational purposes.”
Jones acknowledged the “serious implications” the ruling could have for California landowners from a cost perspective. However, he added that “this positive change resulting in the protection and safety of recreationists clearly outweighs the potential costs to individual landowners.”
Tom Stienstra, a blogger who writes for Recreation News, commented that the opinion may have been long overdue.
“In parks and national forests, rangers, biologists and other employees are thinking about their work while they drive from Point A to Point B, and they can sometimes forget anybody else is out there,” said Stienstra. “You end up with a near miss. Or worse. That’s all going to change. They’re going to have to slow down and pay attention. Or they and the agency they work for will likely pay dearly when they hit somebody.”
The full opinion can be accessed at
Alan Richard Klein et al. v. U.S. et al.; S.Ct.Calif.; S165549; 7/26/10


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