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Estate of Kane v. Epley's, Inc.

United States District Court, D. Idaho

March 28, 2017

THE ESTATE OF JOSEPH R. KANE, deceased; STACIE KANE, individually, and as guardian of JOSEPH P. KANE; and THOMAS KANE, individually, Plaintiffs,
EPLEY'S INC., an Idaho corporation, Defendant.


          Honorable Ronald E. Bush Chief U.S. Magistrate Judge.

         Now pending before the Court is Plaintiffs' (1) Motion to Amend Complaint to Assert Punitive Damage Claim (Docket No. 17), and (2) Motion to Strike Defendant's “Sur Reply” to Plaintiffs' Motion to Amend Complaint to Add Punitive Damages (Docket No. 39). Having carefully considered the record, heard oral argument, and otherwise being fully advised, the Court enters the following Memorandum Decision and Order:

         I. BACKGROUND

         Joseph R. Kane died after being ejected from a raft on a section of the Lower Salmon River known as “Slide Rapid.” Mr. Kane was part of a Boy Scouts of America (“BSA”) group, composed of minors and other adults - the majority of whom had no “whitewater” experience whatsoever. The group booked their trip with Defendant Epley's Inc. (“Epley's”), a licensed outfitter in the state of Idaho that offers guided rafting tours on the Salmon River and Snake River.

         Through this action, Plaintiffs (to include the estate of Mr. Kane, his wife Stacie Kane, and sons Thomas and Joseph P. Kane) claim that Epley's conduct - in particular, its decision to run the Slide Rapid at flows above 23, 000 cubic feet per second (“cfs”) - breached the standard of care applicable to outfitters and guides under chapter 12, Title 6, Idaho Code and that said breach was a direct and proximate result of Mr. Kane's death. See generally Pls.' Compl., ¶¶ 4.1-4.12 (Docket No. 1). Plaintiffs specifically allege:

Defendant's conduct was wrongful and otherwise breached its standard of care by taking Joseph R. and Thomas down the river and through the Slide when they knew or should have known that the river's flow was in excess of 23, 500 cfs, and knowing that these extreme conditions would produce incredibly dangerous Class V or Class VI rapids. Defendant's guides' decision to run these rapids not only ignored the rafter's inexperience, it was also contrary to the express written recommendations of the BLM's published handbook for rafting the Lower Salmon River. Defendant's actions were wrongful in the face of a known, significant risk that was unknown to the Plaintiffs.

Id. at ¶ 4.5. Since the action's inception, the above-referenced breach-of-the-standard-of-care allegations have further evolved into the bases for Plaintiff's at-issue Motion to Amend Complaint to Assert Punitive Damage Claim.[1]

         According to Plaintiffs, Epley's not only ignored and misrepresented to the group the extreme risks presented by the water levels forecasted to be encountered at Slide Rapid on June 27, 2014 (thus permitting the trip's June 24, 2014 launch in the first instance), its later decision to actually continue through Slide Rapid on June 27, 2014 at flows in excess of 23, 500 cfs represented an extreme deviation from industry standards. See generally Mem. in Supp. of Mot. to Am., pp. 5-17 (Docket No. 17, Att. 1). Plaintiffs argue:

Despite the dangerous conditions produced by the high flow levels, Defendant authorized the trip to commence as planned on June 24, 2014. Defendant's manager [(Blackner)] admits that he told the group that the river level would slacken by the time they reached the Slide on the fourth day of the trip, a fact admitted by Blackner and reflected in pre-trip emails by group members. Notably, Blackner told the group he expected the river would be down to 17, 000 cfs by the time they hit the Slide. Blackner asserts he was relying on on-line river forecasts by the National Weather Service (“NWS”) vis-a-vis [National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] (“NOAA”) and [U.S. Geological Survey] (“USGS”), in making this claim.
In fact, however, the water level forecasted by the NWS model as of the morning of the trip launch (June 24) for June 27 - the day the group was scheduled to hit the Slide - was not 17, 000; it was approximately 21, 000 cfs, Class V-VI water. Moreover, while earlier forecast modeling had predicted that the flow levels might recede below 20, 000 cfs, the actual flow measurements taken by the . . . USGS show that the river had remained steadily above 23, 000 cfs for the four days before launch date, flatly belying the earlier forecast models. Defendant's manager and guides were aware of this flow before the trip began. Moreover, rain was forecast for the area during the trip. In short, there was no earthly reason to believe the water level would decrease significantly from the 23, 400 cfs level on launch date by the time the Boy Scouts hit the Slide; all extant evidence and forecasts unequivocally established the Slide would be Class V water on June 27. Notwithstanding the extreme water level, the inexperienced, unfit passengers and the want of cause to believe the river volume would drop, Defendant launched the excursion.
Prior to launch, the Defendant prepared no plan whatsoever to avoid or safely transit the Slid should the water level remain at ClassV level. There were several options available. Defendant could have arranged to take the group off the river at Eagle Creek, the last overnight stop before the Slide. It could have arranged for a larger, motorized raft to transit the group. It could have arranged for jet boat transit at the Slide. Defendant took none of these prudent steps.
On June 26, 2014, the scout group landed and took out at Eagle Creek to spend the night. This was the group's last overnight location before reaching the Slide. Eagle Creek was also the last place where the group could have readily exited the river on land. The guides were aware that the river had not changed appreciably since the launch level of 23, 400 cfs. Indeed, on the morning of June 27, after spending the night at Eagle Creek, Epley's guides could see with the naked eye that the river flow had actually increased overnight. Defendant's guides knew that these extreme flows would produce Class V or VI rapids at the Slide. Despite this knowledge, prior to and after reaching Eagle Creek, the Defendant's agents made no plan to avoid the Slide in the event the water level did not recede, no plan to remove the group at Eagle Creek, and no plan to bring extra assets to the area of the Slide to relieve the obvious risk posed by the rapid. The guides had access to a satellite phone, but they opted to not use it to verify water levels or explore options for avoiding the Slide, notwithstanding that it had “constantly” rained following the June 24 launch .....

Id. at pp. 5-6 (internal citations omitted, italics in original, underlining added); see also id. at pp. 14, 16 (“Based on the evidence presented here, it can be inferred that Blackner intentionally or with gross negligence misled the group (and possibly his lead guide) to believe the Slide would be safely navigable by June 27 ..... There [was] no rational justification for allowing this group to launch on June 24, other than for financial gain.”); id. at p. 16 (“Simply put, once the group left on June 24, Epley's plan was to send the group through the Slide regardless of conditions, risk of injury or death to riders, or industry standards ..... The decision by the guides to authorize the trip to continue through the Slide after reaching Eagle Creek on June 26 also constitutes an extreme deviation from industry standards. The trip should have unquestionably been terminated when the guides recognized that the flows had not dropped since June 24.”).[2]

         Epley's disputes these claims outright, but alternatively argues that, even if true, they operate only to support claims that it was grossly negligent or reckless. See generally Opp. to Mot. to Am., pp. 12-19 (Docket No. 22). In short, attacking the quantum of Plaintiffs' proffered evidence, Epley's argues that, “[t]he mere fact of a tragic death during a high risk recreational activity does not create the necessary fraud, malice, outrage, or oppression” to warrant a claim for punitive damages. Id. at p. 12; see also id. at p. 15 (“Ultimately, even Plaintiffs' evidence regarding the water levels do not rise to any necessary level of proof that Epley's acted maliciously, outrageously, fraudulently, or oppressively.”); id. at p. 17 (“The Plaintiffs' evidence fails to rise to the level of reasonable likelihood of proving fraud, oppression, malice, or outrage.”); id. at p. 19 (“[Plaintiffs'] evidence in this motion at best claims that [Epley's] was grossly negligent or reckless, but nowhere explains or establishes fraud, oppression, malice, or outrage necessary to amend to add punitives.”).


         A. Punitive ...

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