Case of the Day – Thursday, January 18, 2018

THE SINKHOLE WAS LINED WITH GOLD AFTER ALL

When we last left our intrepid Air Force Academy cadets, they had just been rescued in the nick of time from the runaway train that was the U.S. District Court for the District of Colorado. At the same time, the dastardly Jim Nelson saw the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals snatch the cadets’ $7.7 million (it was probably the mortgage money) from his grubby mitts.

OK, that’s both hyperbolic and fictional. The 4,400 USAFA cadets had not been sued individually, but rather the U.S. government was the defendant. What’s more, Jim was not dastardly. His hands may have been grubby, but that was because he fell into a massive sinkhole on what may or may not have been a bike path on the expansive Academy property. The District Court found the Academy management had breached a duty to Jim, who it found was USAFA’s invitee (despite the bike path having signs warning against trespassing). But the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals rode (or flew) to the Academy’s rescue, applying the Colorado Recreation User Act and holding that USAFA was immune from liability because it had opened up its bike path without charge for the public’s use, whether it intended to (or even knew it had) or not.

But the Tenth Circuit decision had a little “gotcha” right at the end. After finding the RUA applied, the appellate court remanded the case to the District Court to determine if an exception to the RUA’s liability limitations applied — whether the Air Force Academy’s actions constituted a “willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a known dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity likely to cause harm…” Such a failure is an exception to the RUA’s broad immunity.

Last spring, the case was again in front of the District Court, who seemed just a little too enamored of the bike rider and too dismissive of USAFA management for our tastes. After all, a sinkhole big enough to swallow Jim? We’ve seen the Academy grounds, even the unimproved parts, and they are pretty wide open, sparse of trees and underbrush. How did Jim, who admitted he rode the trail regularly, miss seeing the sinkhole well before he rode into it?

Alas, we’ll never know. What we do know is that the District Court concluded that the Academy folks knew people used the trail although they were not supposed to. A USAFA employee who maintained the 40-square mile grounds saw and photographed the sinkhole a few weeks before the accident, but because he himself did not know that people were using the path despite the signs, he saw no reason to fill the sinkhole.

But thanks to the tort doctrine of respondeat superior, which is a Latin way of saying the company is to blame when its employees are negligent in the course of their employment, the District Court strung together management’s knowledge that people ignored the signs and used the path with the employee’s knowledge of the sinkhole, and found that USAFA willfully failed to guard or warn against a known dangerous condition…”

Voilà! Just like that, the Air Force Academy was back on the hot seat, and Jim rode off on his bicycle with 160 lbs. in his rucksack, which is about what $7.3 million in 100-dollar bills weigh.

Nelson v. United States, 256 F. Supp. 3d 1136 (D.Colo. 2017): James Nelson was seriously injured in a bicycle accident on September 3, 2008, when he encountered a sinkhole/washout on a bike path on United States Air Force Academy land. He sued under the Federal Tort Claims Act for damages. The Tenth Circuit previously determined that the Academy was immune from liability within the limits of Colorado’s Recreational User Act.

USAFA knew, prior to Jim’s accident that the path existed on its property, and that members of the public used the path where Jim was injured. Upkeep of the property was the Academy’s responsibility. The Academy had a Trails Management Plan that provided guidance about the proper maintenance to be performed on official trails, but the asphalt path on which the biking accident occurred was not on the Academy’s Real Property Record, so maintenance of the path did not fall within the scope of a contract the USAFA had with a maintenance company.

The sinkhole Jim encountered was the result of off-site water flowing onto Academy property that overwhelmed the culvert running under the path, causing a washout. Dr. Brian Mihlbachler, an Academy contractor responsible for grounds maintenance, testified that the sinkhole was large and readily visible during the day. However, a witness who encountered the sinkhole while jogging the morning after Jim’s accident thought the sinkhole was water until he was significantly closer to it.

Dr. Mihlbachler said the condition of the path with the sinkhole would be a safety hazard for users of the path if it were an official Academy trail. Thus, if it were an official trail, he would have reported the condition of the path to maintenance to get it repaired. He was the only Academy employee actually aware of the sinkhole before the accident, and in fact had photographed the sinkhole two weeks before Jim was injured. However, he did not report the sinkhole or to anyone else before the accident, because the trail management plan did not reference any asphalt surface trails. There was no rule or regulation in the trail management plan or otherwise that would have required fixing a hole on an unofficial path such as the asphalt path. Dr. Mihlbachler also said the Academy’s trail management plan contained guidelines about what constitutes a safe trail for the users, and that “criteria would have applied in this situation [to the asphalt path] had I known that it was designed – . . . as a trail, yes.”

The Court held that Dr. Mihlbachler chose not to do anything about the sinkhole when he encountered it (other than to take its picture). His decision was based on his perception that it not the Academy’s responsibility because he did not think people were using the path for recreational purposes. He “didn’t feel the Air Force Academy considered it to be a trail of any sort” and that the hole was thus unlikely to cause anyone harm.

The Court found the Academy unreasonably failed to exercise reasonable care to protect against a danger – the sinkhole on the path caused by erosion – of which it actually knew. Under the respondeat superior doctrine, “an employer or principal is liable for acts that its employee or agent commits on behalf of the employer or principal within the scope of the employment or agency… based on the theory that the employee acts on behalf of the employer when the employee is acting within the scope of his authority.” The evidence shows that Dr. Mihlbachler knew of the significant erosion problems in the immediate area of the path and its condition prior to Jim’s accident.

The RUA places the risk of injury for recreational activity upon the recreational user rather than the landowner subject to certain specifically enumerated exceptions to its limitations on landowner liability. One of these exceptions to liability is a landowner’s “willful or malicious failure to guard or warn against a known dangerous condition, use, structure, or activity likely to cause harm.”

The RUA does not define the terms “willful” or “malicious,” but the court concluded the phrase had its plain and ordinary meaning of “voluntarily, purposefully and with a conscious disregard for the consequences of the act”. Willfulness does not require that a government employee be consciously aware that his acts or omissions create danger or risk to the safety of the public. It was enough that the Academy knew that the asphalt path existed on its property and knew that persons used the path for recreational purposes, including bicycling, by invitation or with permission.

What’s more, the Court said, the Academy knew that people were using the path for recreational purposes, yet chose not to communicate that to its agent Dr. Mihlbachler even though he played a safety role at the Academy in connection with his role as Trail Manager. Thus, the court concluded, Dr. Mihlbachler acted “voluntarily, intentionally, and with a conscious disregard for the consequences of the act” when he chose not to make the sinkhole a priority or to do anything to warn about it or guard against its danger.

Despite the immunity normally afforded by the RUA, the Air Force Academy was liable to Jim.

– Tom Root

TNLBGray140407

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