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By SONJA LEE
Great Falls Tribune Staff Writer
February 4, 2004
A federal judge in Missoula has awarded a Michigan man, who suffered catastrophic brain injuries after a 1996 snowmobile accident north of West Yellowstone, about $11 million in damages, including about $4 million from the U.S. Forest Service.
Brian Musselman, who at the time of the accident was 35 years old, was injured when another snowmobiler blasted over a 17-foot jump on a trail and crashed into him.
Lori Oberson, Musselman’s sister, brought the case on behalf of her brother, alleging the U.S. Forest Service neglected to fix or warn snowmobilers of the dangerous conditions on the groomed trail.
Musselman’s former wife, Kimberlee Musselman, brought the case on behalf of their daughter Devon.
The plaintiffs sought $40 million in damages.
At least one snowmobile organization is concerned about the decision and what it may mean for the future of groomed trails throughout the state.
Musselman, an expert snowmobiler and member of the Michigan Snowmobile Hall of Fame, is unable to care for himself and requires 24-hour care.
U.S. District Judge Don Molloy issued a 100-page judgment in late January stating that Musselman was 10 percent responsible for his own injuries and a fellow snowmobiler was 50 percent responsible. The Forest Service is 40 percent responsible for the damages, according to the decision.
Molloy found that Musselman is owed $11.3 million for medical expenses, lost earnings, loss of enjoyment of life and past and future pain and suffering. Musselman’s damages were reduced by about $1.1 million, because he was found to be 10 percent responsible for his own accident.
The Forest Service is obligated to pay $4 million to Musselman’s family including damages to his daughter Devon, who was 5 years old at the time of the accident, according to the decision.
Great Falls attorneys Tom Lewis and Dave Slovak and Missoula attorney Andrew Huppert represented Oberson and the Musselmans. The U.S. Attorney’s office represented the Forest Service.
Slovak said he could not comment on the case. The U.S. Attorney’s office did not return calls to Tuesday.
There is a 60-day window for the decision to be appealed to the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
The trail system is well-signed, but the hill where the accident occurred was not signed, according to court documents.
“The presence of signs throughout the trail system created a reasonable expectation that a hill of unexpected steepness would be signed,” Molloy wrote in his judgment.
Alan Brown, legal affairs director and past president of the Montana Snowmobile Association, said he is concerned the case may raise liability questions about Montana’s snowmobile grooming program.
“Conditions change day to day and hour to hour. It is impossible to warn people about all the hazards,” Brown said. “I’m afraid there is going to be pressure to sign everything.”
Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks contracts with most snowmobile clubs for trail grooming.
The FWP also was named in the original case, but later was dismissed because the section of trail where the accident happened was not part of the FWP system. FWP spokesman Ron Aasheim said the judge determined the state was not liable, and he had no comment on the case.
Bob Walker, state trails program coordinator, said the decision will be reviewed and the department will decide if adjustments are needed in the trails program.
According to court documents, around 10 p.m. on the night of the accident, Musselman and three other snowmobilers, Jaime Leinberger, Patrick Kalahar and Tim Johnson, were traveling on the Big Sky Trail. Musselman and Johnson went over a hill, which drops about 17 feet, and Johnson’s sled was damaged. Musselman pulled his sled off the trail and went to assist Johnson.
Kalahar and Leinberger came over the hill side by side, and one of them hit Musselman in the head, according to court documents.
No one was cited in connection with the accident. And a blood alcohol sample was only taken from Musselman. The blood alcohol level, however, never was established.
Molloy ruled that alcohol did not impair Musselman, but said in his decision that Kalahar and Leinberger came over the crest of the hill at high speeds and under the influence of alcohol. Molloy said it is impossible to determine who hit Musselman. Kalahar, however, settled prior to the trial and was no longer a party to the lawsuit. Leinberger was then found solely liable for 50 percent of the damages.
The West Yellowstone Chamber of Commerce, which also was named, also settled prior to the trial.
The Forest Service since 1990 knew that riding at high rates of speed, in excess of 60 mph was taking place, according to court documents. About a month before the accident, a speed limit of 45 mph was instituted. The Forest Service also was planning to reduce the grade of the hill where the accident occurred.
“The posted speed limit misleads snowmobile operators and creates false expectations of safety, particularly at this hill and particularly for a rider who is unfamiliar with this trail,” according to Molloy’s decision.
Sixteen days prior to Musselman’s accident, two snowmobilers crested the same hill and were surprised by a snow grooming machine coming up the hill. In that accident, no one was injured, but one snowmobile was damaged.
Speed is a problem for snowmobilers. Read the USFS Trail Tip reproduced below:
Snow/trail conditions have improved at most elevations 01.27.04
Snow/trail conditions have improved at most
elevations with 2-16" of new snow over the past few days. Forecast for next few
days calls for more precipitation.
Just a safety reminder for all users to be aware of other users on/off the trails and for snowmobile operators that may tend to ride on the fast side to slow down. During the Martin Luther King Weekend on the Bend/Ft. Rock Ranger District there were 5 injury (broken bones) snowmobile accidents which were mostly attributable to either inexperience and/or speed.
Another serious injury snowmobile accident occurred near Odell Lake last Saturday that may have also involved riding too fast for the conditions.
Remember, share the trails safely. Have a safe week!
--Chris Sabo, Trails/Wilderness
Read more . . .
SNOWMOBILES - a history of this discussion:
Snowmobile parking at Kapka Butte and Dutchman Flat revisited in 2009
Proposed Tumalo Recreation Zone in the Deschutes National Forest in 2009
Snowmobiler falls 1,500' into Mt. St. Helens and survives
Map of snowmobile restrictions at Dutchman Flat
Snowmobile restrictions published for Dutchman Flat
Snowmobile Safety Summit on Dutchman Flat area
Report snowmobile renegades - an Editorial
Snowmobiles should not mix with skiers and snowshoers
Snowmobile accident draws $11 million dollar damage award
Snowmobilers keep the Atta Boy Race on track
Snowmobilers must give a little on parking at Dutchman Flat
Recent snowmobile accidents near Bend
Set snowmobile limits at Dutchman Flat
Unregulated OHV use is being reviewed across the western states
Snowmobile access to summit of Mt. St. Helens questioned by The Mountaineers
Snowmobile speed limits on Dutchman Flat in Oregon
Snowmobiles offer thrills
Snowmobiles in Yellowstone
Snowmobiles as a tool for traditional mountaineering