On Father’s Day 2007, 11-year-old Samuel Ives was camping with his mother, stepfather and brother in Utah’s American Fork Canyon.
In the middle of the night, the parents heard Samuel screaming “Help me!” from his room in their tent. They awoke to find the tent slashed, the boy missing. At first, they believed someone had kidnapped him. Later, they discovered a black bear had ripped open the tent and dragged him to his death – the
first known killing of a human by a black bear in Utah history.
The same bear, it turned out, had raided the same campsite just 12 hours earlier. The Forest Service should have warned them, his natural parents Kevan Francis and Rebecca Ives argued.
Last week, a federal judge agreed, and ordered the federal government to pay them nearly $2 million.
While recognizing that no amount of money will ever compensate (them) for their loss of their son,” wrote U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball, he found the Forest Service was negligent for not warning them of the threat of an aggressive bear.
The parents filed a separate lawsuit pending against the state Division of Wildlife Resources.
The decision capped a three-year-long legal action that called into question the Forest Service’s role in warning campers about the dangers in the outdoors.
“I’m glad that it’s over, but I’m actually surprised that they decided to fight us, when they were clearly wrong,” Francis told the Deseret News after hearing about the ruling.
“We really hope that this keeps it from happening to someone else,” he said.
The Forest Service had argued it was impossible to prove any action by the agency could have prevented the bear attack. Since no black bear had ever been known to kill a human in Utah, the agency argued, it had no reason to believe it was necessary to warn the family.
Still, the agency fired the Forest Service worker who knew about the dangerous bear but issued no warnings about it.
Kimball found the Forest Service “breached its duty” by failing to warn the family.
Assessing the damages at $3 million, he found the Forest Service was 65 percent at fault, thus liable for $1.95 million. He found the state Division of Wildlife Resources was 25 percent to blame for failing to adequately communicate with the Forest Service.
He also found the family shared some blame for leaving traces of food – a granola bar wrapper and a Coke Zero can – in the tent in bear country.
“The court would be abdicating its responsibility if it failed to allocate any fault whatsoever to Sam and his parents because of the food that was found in the family tent,” wrote Kimball, in what he called a “heart-wrenching case.”
The dangers the bear might present had just come to light hours before the boy’s death. The previous night, June 16, Jake Francom and his friends were camping in the same spot, a popular informal campsite on a dead-end road in the Uintah National Forest.
Francom awoke inside his tent at 5:30 a.m. to a bear batting at his head from outside. When he sat up, the bear pushed him down again, his paw slicing a gash through the tent. A large cinnamon-colored bear, it ripped a pillow from the tent before Francom and his friends scared it away with pistol shots and rocks.
Francom alerted the state Division of Wildlife Resources, which sent officers and dogs in search of the bear, but they never found it. An officer planned to return the next morning to place a trap at the campsite.
But the agency never passed on the word to the Forest Service, and a Forest Service employee alerted to Francom’s run-in by a sheriff’s dispatcher never told co-workers. Had they known, they testified, they could have easily posted warnings, even taped off the campsite, and alerted the campground host at nearby Timpooneke Campground.
That never happened, though. When Samuel Ives, his brother, mother Rebecca Ives and father-in-law Tim Mulvey arrived at the campground the evening of June 17, the host knew nothing of the problem bear.
Short the $13 to stay in the campground, the family opted for a campsite 1.2 miles away in the forest – the same spot where the bear had slashed through Francom’s tent and raided his group’s cooler just 12 hours earlier.
The bear returned that night with deadly consequences, leaving the family with what Kimball called “an almost unbearable, unimaginable loss.”
The Forest Service should have known the bear might return to the same campsite, the judge concluded, after a 5-day bench trial. He found that the agency owed the family “a duty to warn them.”
The Forest Service may appeal the decision.
Family members said they hoped the ruling would put the lawsuit behind them.
“Money doesn’t bring him back,” his grandmother Sharon Ives told the Salt Lake Tribune. “We think about him every day.”