Immunity for county in boy’s death?
Aspen Times Staff Writer
A Carbondale family will try to convince a judge Thursday that Eagle County government should stand trial for contributing to the death of their son at the Mount Sopris Tree Farm two years ago.
Steve and Cathy Close filed a lawsuit against the county for allowing an allegedly unsafe facility to be used by kids without supervision. Their son, Jamie, was killed June 23, 2001, while he was playing with friends in a makeshift skateboard park set up in one of the abandoned buildings in the tree farm in El Jebel.
The Closes, through Colorado Springs attorney Joe Bennett, contend that the county had an obligation to make sure the facility was safe or shut it down. The county, which is being represented by its insurance company, contends it has governmental immunity in the case under state law. It filed a motion to dismiss the case.
A hearing Thursday will determine if the case proceeds. “It’s almost a mini-trial for the entire case,” said Bennett.
At the hearing he plans to call kids who witnessed the accident, county officials and people who established the skateboard park. Bennett said he has to try to prove that a negligent situation existed.
Jamie, who was 10 at the time of his death, wasn’t skateboarding at the time of the accident. He and friends had been dropped off by the mother of one of the boys. Jamie was riding his bike in the long, narrow building that housed the skatepark. Shortly thereafter, he and his friends were apparently just running around when witnesses said he banged his head against a metal bar that he had tried to duck under. He fell backward, grabbed the bar and pulled it on top of him. The bar landed on his forehead, and he died instantly.
The hunk of metal was brought into the park for use as a grinding bar, where skaters run their boards down the length of it. Bennett said the bar was about 200 pounds, nearly 5 feet long and situated on 3-foot long and unsteady legs.
County officials should have known it was unsafe, Bennett said. They claim they didn’t know it was in there.
“They didn’t know it was there because they weren’t looking,” said Bennett.
County officials said they assigned supervision and maintenance of the facility to a group called the Mount Sopris Skateboarding Association. Two leaders of that group, Royal Laybourn and Herb Weisbard, were named in the lawsuit. But they were released because Colorado law gives individuals who volunteer time for children’s recreational endeavors immunity from liability, according to Bennett.
He contends the county didn’t make the association live up to its obligations by enforcing terms of the contract with the group.
If the Closes prevail in the motions hearing and in trial, the county would only be liable for between $150,000 and $300,000, depending on other interpretations of the law.
“If this case was just about money, I would have told them to forget it,” said Bennett. “The issue is accountability. People responsible for serious injury or death ought to be accountable.”
Bennett said he believes the family would like to see the rickety old building where Jamie was killed torn down. That building, once used to store pine cones when the U.S. Forest Service used the property as a tree nursery, is closed now while county officials determine the fate of the existing facilities. The open fields that were part of the tree farm are being developed as recreational amenities by the Crown Mountain Recreation District.
[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is email@example.com]
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