Lawsuit dismissed in girl’s death at Big Four ice caves

SEATTLE — A federal District Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit against the U.S. Forest Service brought by the family of Grace Tam, an 11-year-old Marysville girl who died at the Big Four ice caves in 2010.

Judge James Robart on Friday ruled in favor of the government’s motion to dismiss the case.

Grace died of internal injuries July 31, 2010, after she was struck and crushed by a massive chunk of ice that snapped off the ice field. She was standing a dozen feet from the ice fields waiting to have her photo taken when she was struck.

Her parents, John Tam and Tamami Okauchi, on Dec. 20, 2011, filed a wrongful-death suit against the federal government, alleging that the Forest Service was careless and negligent in its efforts to warn people about the dangers of visiting the ice caves.

Big Four Mountain’s ice flow is among the most popular places visited in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest. Thousands of people visit each summer and records show that hundreds were there on the day the Tam family was there.

On the day that Grace Tam died, a warning sign was missing from its regular spot near the ice caves. The sign was located along the trail from the Big Four parking lot off the Mountain Loop Highway, east of Verlot. However, similar warning signs were posted at the parking lot. The warning at the kiosk at the ice caves trailhead reads: “Danger! The caves are extremely unstable! DO NOT enter or climb on them. On Aug. 2, 1998, one death and a serious injury occurred due to the ice caves collapsing. You have a responsibility for yourself and your loved ones.”

Darrington District Forest Service officials testified that the limited number of weekend staff were out working on forest trails and in campgrounds and not available to put up the replacement sign after it arrived July 30. The sign was installed on Aug. 2, 2010, two days after Grace was killed.

Government lawyers argued that no federal law mandates that the Forest Service replace safety signs on a certain schedule or where to put them.

“In hindsight it may be easy to say the (Forest Service) should have replaced the signs sooner, but that is exactly the judicial second-guessing of government decision-making that the discretionary function exception (of the Federal Tort Claims Act) is designed to prevent,” government lawyers argued. “(Our) task is not to determine whether the Forest Service made the correct decision in its allocation of resources. Where the government is forced, as it was here, to balance competing concerns, immunity shields the decision.”

Robart concluded that the government established that it has sovereign immunity under the exception to the tort claims act.

In an email sent after the ruling, Darrington District Ranger Peter Forbes said, “we are deeply sorry for the family’s loss.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

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