Federal trial slated next month for Boy Scouts
Next month the Boy Scouts, or their attorneys rather, should be prepared.
Accused of starting a wildfire that in 2002 consumed more than 14,000 acres in the Uinta Mountains, the Boy Scouts of America is scheduled to go on trial in Salt Lake City March 5 at 8:30 a.m.
Unsure who is responsible for starting the fire that originated near the East Fork of the Bear River Scout Reservation along the Mirror Lake Highway east of Kamas, U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell has ordered a 10-day jury trial to determine whether the Boy Scouts must pay nearly $14 million in fire-suppression costs the government incurred fighting the blaze.
Perhaps a small victory for both sides, Campbell’s Jan. 22 order on the government’s motion for partial summary judgment could allow arguments for opposing theories about how the East Fork Fire began.
"We have one theory and we have a fire expert that will testify that the fire started where it started," said Melodie Rydalch, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Salt Lake City. "All the scientific evidence supports that and it’s going to rely a lot on the expert testimony."
The government contends results from an investigation show a group of Scouts from Peoa who were pursuing a merit badge failed to properly extinguish a campfire while under the supervision of two 15-year-olds.
But the Great Salt Lake Council of the Boy Scouts of America denies responsibility for the fire that was found burning at 1:30 p.m. June 28, 2002. Scouts claim the government hasn’t proved they started the blaze.
The forest fire was the result of a campfire lit by an unknown group of boys who were not under the supervision of the Boy Scouts that started a hut in the woods on fire, according to Robert Wallace, an attorney for the Boy Scouts.
"At the time the unknown [boys] ignited the campfire which lit the lean-to or hut on fire, the [boys] were not under the control or supervision of the [Great Salt Lake Council]," a third-party complaint filed by Wallace states.
Wallace wasn’t available to comment for this story.
Campfires started by boys under the organization’s supervision were completely doused, Scout leaders have claimed.
But the federal lawsuit accuses the group of leaving Scouts in the forest without properly equipping them with water, firefighting tools and adult supervision.
The East Fork Fire forced closures in the Wasatch-Cache National Forest as nearly 1,100 firefighters moved in to fight the blaze.
Meanwhile, the judge indicated if the Boy Scouts caused the fire, they’ll be held liable, Rydalch said.
"There is no alternative theory on the liability," she said. "[Campbell] basically said that there are reasons that it should go to trial."
But as federal attorneys prepare for a trial, Kay Godfrey, who is a spokesman for the Boy Scouts, says it may not be necessary.
"I would hope that this is always a possibility," Godfrey said. "There are still lots of negotiations and lots of things happening."
Insurance companies would likely pay any portion of a $13 million verdict that goes against the Scouts, Rydalch said.
"People have insurance coverage to pay for these kinds of things," she added.
The Great Salt Lake Council of the Boy Scouts, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Peoa ward of the LDS Church face a separate lawsuit from the state that seeks to collect more that $600,000 in suppression costs for the East Fork Fire.
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