SALT LAKE CITY -- The Utah Supreme Court has sided with the family of Sam Ives, who is suing the state over the 11-year-old boy's death from a bear attack in 2007, ruling that a bear is not a "natural condition" on public lands.
In a ruling handed down late Friday, the state's top court ruled that state wildlife officers had a duty to protect campers after being told of a bear in the area. Ives' family was camping at the Timpanooeke Campground, when he was dragged out of his tent and killed.
Lawyers for the state had argued in part that Utah officials were immune from liability because of "natural conditions" that come with being in the wilderness. But in its ruling, the Utah Supreme Court said it concluded "that a bear is not a “natural condition on publicly owned or controlled lands."
"It only applies to topographical things," said Peggy Stone, assistant Utah Attorney General. "So it would be avalanches, rivers, boulders. So I guess in this case if a boulder had come crashing down and run Sam Ives over they couldn't have sued the state."
Stone had argued to the Utah Supreme Court that a bear is a part of nature because, like an avalanche, it cannot be controlled.
"It lives in the woods... it's not brought in, so it's a condition of the land," she said Friday. "Two justices agreed with the state's opinion."
In a dissenting opinion, Utah Supreme Court Justice Jill Parrish said that a bear is as much a part of the "natural condition of land as are the rivers, lakes or trees."
Tyler Young, an attorney for Sam Ives' family said he was happy with the ruling.
"I'm very happy for my clients. The analysis of the court was made very carefully. We made the right legal conclusion," he said in a statement to FOX 13.
The Ives family's lawsuit will now return to Provo's 4th District Court. Stone said Utah's Division of Wildlife Resources will have to decide if it will litigate or settle. The Ives family won nearly $2 million in a lawsuit against federal authorities over the boy's death.
The Utah Attorney General's Office is expected to further analyze the ruling and suggest changes in the law to the Utah State Legislature to guard against future litigation. Stone said the high court's ruling could potentially open the door to more and costly litigation against the state over people's activities in the wilderness.
"If that becomes too much for the state to take then potentially, maybe it closes certain campgrounds at certain times of the year, maybe all the time," she said. "Or it comes down to a statutory fix. We get the legislature to say no, what we mean by 'natural condition' includes wildlife or insects or birds."