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COATES v. UNITED STATES

May 6, 1985

ROSEMARY COATES AND MARCIAN COATES AND ADAM COATES, MINORS, BY ROSEMARY COATES, THEIR MOTHER AND NEXT FRIEND, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mihm, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

This is an action for damages flowing from the death on July 15, 1982 of Terry Coates, husband and father of the Plaintiffs. Suit is brought pursuant to the Federal Tort Claims Act, 28 U.S.C. § 2671 et seq, being based upon § 2674. Jurisdiction of this Court is based upon 28 U.S.C. § 1346(b) and venue is properly asserted under 28 U.S.C. § 1402(b). Colorado law applies.

FINDINGS OF FACT

On the day Terry Coates drowned, he was camping with his wife and two children in an area of Rocky Mountain National Park known as the Aspenglen Campground. He was, on that day, 36 years of age, healthy, and employed by the Peoria Public Schools. He had begun as a teacher with the school district and had, by virtue of additional schooling and effective performance, moved up into an administrative position. The evidence showed that Terry Coates was an accomplished handyman, performing many of the routine duties of maintenance and repair around his home. In addition, he completely remodeled the family basement, doing all but the most basic plumbing in order to convert it to a family room. He also made furniture for the home. He built the patio, repaired the family cars, and did everyday yard work and housework. He also was actively involved with his children, helping them with their school work and taking opportunities to teach them through the family's recreational activities. This latter activity included teaching the children biology while they were on camping trips.

Theirs was a family of avid campers, and in July of 1982 they planned the longest camping trip they had ever taken, going to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. Upon their arrival at the camp they paid the fee, which was assessed by the United States for camping, and were assigned a location in the Aspenglen Campground.

At this point, the Court will attempt to create a word picture of that area in Rocky Mountain National Park relevant to an understanding of the events which occurred on the day of Terry Coates' death.

At the top of a steep mountainous incline is the Lawn Lake Dam (the dam), which is situated within the park but owned by the Farmers Irrigation Ditch and Reservoir Company. Near the dam and proceeding down the side of the mountain is a water channel known as the Roaring River Drainage. At the base of the Drainage there is a large, relatively flat meadow area which is known as Horseshoe Park. Although the terrain of Horseshoe Park itself is substantially flat, the elevation of the west end is higher than that of the east end so that the park is tilted downward in the direction of Aspenglen Campground. At the lower east end of Horseshoe Park is a second dam, known as Cascade Dam, which is approximately 40 feet wide and located about one-half mile from the Aspenglen Campground. The campground itself is downstream from the Cascade Dam, sitting at an elevation lower than that of Horseshoe Park. It consists of two separate areas; the first a "mainland" area consisting of a parking lot and walk-in campsites, and the second being an island of still lower elevation, connected to the mainland by a footbridge.

On the morning of July 15, 1982, the tent of Terry Coates and his family was pitched in a mainland campsite at the Aspenglen Campground. Sometime before 6:30 a.m. that morning, the Lawn Lake Dam had failed and a garbage man, observing the rushing water, notified the ranger station which served that portion of the park. The following events all occurred within a period of slightly more than one hour. Park rangers were alerted to the potentially dangerous situation and, within approximately 20 minutes of the report of the dam's failure, Ranger Schultz was dispatched to warn the "walk-in" (mainland) campsites. At 6:50, he entered the campsite and, within 15 minutes, had warned several of the campers, but not all of them assigned to that area. He did not, however, tell them that a dam had failed or that a flood was approaching; rather, he suggested, apparently without urgency, that it might be wise for campers to evacuate the area. Neither Terry nor Rosemary Coates received any warning from Ranger Schultz, although they did have second-hand information that campers were being warned to leave the area. At that time, they could see what Rosemary Coates described as a "little water," but nothing to warn them of the actual situation. This was approximately 7:15. The Coates had planned to leave the Aspenglen Campground that day anyway. While Rosemary Coates woke the children and prepared to leave, Terry Coates went to the parking area, got his camera from the car, and began taking pictures. After she had packed up, Mrs. Coates heard a loud noise, saw a rush of water, and began to move to high ground with the children. She had no knowledge at that point of where her husband was. It is, however, apparent that he had returned to the car because his camera was later found there. The testimony shows that witnesses saw Terry Coates and Bridget Dorris, who also died in the flood, crossing the footbridge to the island portion of the campground.

Although the testimony indicates a good deal of ranger activity during the course of these events, the Court finds by a preponderance of the evidence that the conduct of the Defendant was negligent in the following respects: (1) The Defendant failed to post an observer at the Cascade Dam to monitor the flood waters and their impact on the dam; (2) they failed to have a ranger in Aspenglen Campground at all times during the flood; (3) they failed to give adequate warning of the danger resulting from the failure of the dam to Terry Coates; and (4) they failed to maintain or implement a plan for dealing with emergencies, such as the one involved here.

On the issue of damages, the Court finds that Terry Coates' widow and two minor children sustained a pecuniary loss, as a result of his death, in the amount of Eight Hundred Thousand Dollars ($800,000). Since the time of his death, Rosemary Coates and her children have received Social Security survivor benefits from the Social Security Administration. At the time of trial, the amount paid to them, collectively, was $10,259. Because of her remarriage in January of 1985, Rosemary Coates is no longer eligible to receive benefits; Marcian and Adam, however, will continue to receive payment until each has attained the age of 18. Extrapolating from the current rate of payment and making reasonable projections, it appears that Marcian is entitled to an additional $9,036 and Adam to an additional $13,806.

Failure to Inspect

Turning to the failure of the Lawn Lake Dam, which was the precipitating event, the Court finds that, although the dam is located within the boundaries of the Rocky Mountain National Park, it was, in fact, built in 1902 by the Farmers Irrigation Ditch and Reservoir Company and is still owned by them pursuant to an easement granted them by the Government. Although the federal Government had never formally inspected the dam, it was inspected in 1975, 1977, and 1978 by a Colorado State Engineer. It was scheduled for federal inspection in 1982 on a date later than July 15. The most probable cause of the dam's collapse was rapid erosion caused by water seeping through a breach in the junction of an inlet pipe and a valve. Since it appears that such erosion would be extremely rapid, it is unlikely that a normal inspection of the dam would have disclosed the defect unless that inspection took place within a few hours prior to its failure.

It may well be that, as Plaintiffs allege, Lawn Lake Dam was a ticking bomb. Inspection by the federal Government may or may not have revealed critical structural defects, including the one which appears to have been the most probable cause of the dam's failure on July 15, 1982. The record in this case is such that the Court finds Plaintiffs have not shown by a preponderance of the evidence ...


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