Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Valet Parking Settles $ 1 Million Woman Death Suit

Copyright © 2021

A towering ponderosa pine, weakened in five years by two lightning strikes in Bandelier National Monument, killed an 81-year-old grandmother who was with her family at the 2016 Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta in New Mexico when she was in one The gust of wind overturned and fell on her.

The 70-meter-high tree landed in a visitor parking lot at the popular monument near Los Alamos five years ago when the Chicago native and her two adult children got into their rental car after a hike and watched a park movie.

Beverly Modlin

Beverly Modlin sustained head, spinal and other injuries after the tree fell, partially collapsed in the rental car, and cut her adult son Robert Modlin, who sustained minor injuries. Her daughter Susan Hines was already sitting in the back seat of the car, according to valet parking investigators, when she heard a “crack, pop” and the tree fell. Hines was unharmed.

A wrongful death lawsuit filed in 2019 alleged that the accident was not “force majeure”.

Beverly Modlin’s family settled the case for $ 1 million earlier this year.

“I would hope this was a wake-up call for the United States Park Service to better protect visitors to our national parks,” said Albuquerque attorney Jacob Vigil, who represented Modlin’s family.

A valet spokeswoman said in a statement: “We are still saddened by the tragic accident in which one of our visitors was killed.”

She added that Bandelier’s valet parking has since reviewed and revised its logs for monitoring dangerous trees, and is making every effort to identify and remove those that pose an imminent threat to parking lots, sidewalks or other places where visitors are probably gather. “

The family traveled to New Mexico for the Balloon Fiesta in October 2016 “to get it off their bucket list,” Vigil told the Journal. A visit to Bandelier was also on her program. With its old cliff dwellings, Bandelier attracts up to 200,000 visitors annually.

“They ended up with their mother killed in front of their eyes and went back to Chicago alone without her.”

Two weeks earlier, park officials had discovered that the tree, the tallest in this area of ​​the forest, had been struck by lightning for the second time in five years, according to an investigation by the park service.

“They had a lot of warnings,” said Vigil. “They knew the tree was fragile and could harm visitors at any time. It was a ticking time bomb. “

The tree bordered the path to the amphitheater in the park, where an opera with hundreds of visitors was planned for September 2016.

According to an investigation report by the parking service:

A severe storm hit the park on September 16, 2016 and blew up an electrical transformer.

A lightning-damaged Ponderosa pine fell in the parking lot of Bandelier National Monument on October 3, 2016, killing Beverly Modlin as she got into that rental car. Photo courtesy Jacob Vigil

A week later, a bandolier ranger discovered that the 70-foot ponderosa pine had been struck by lightning and sent his supervisor a photo of the tree and a written report saying the lightning struck the tree was responsible for the blackout be responsible.

At least six other Bandelier employees and the then Bandelier Superintendent Jason Lott also observed the tree personally and / or knew that it was being felled. A staff member noticed tree trunks or broken pieces of tree on a path for disabled visitors

“We will have to deal with it at some point, as you know it will likely die and become a hazard to the parking lot and path,” said one employee when he reported a “large crack” in the tree to his supervisor, which revealed Investigation.

The 70-foot damaged tree next to the parking lot didn’t appear to be crooked, park officials told investigators after Beverly Modlin died.

Although they denied any negligence on the part of their employees, in response to the lawsuit, valet officials admitted that none of their employees had any formal training in identifying dangerous trees and that there were no documents to show that the dangers of the tree had been thoroughly investigated placed before his fall. There was no danger tree trainer or curriculum for identifying dangerous trees in the park.

It was an unwritten practice of Bandelier employees to notify the Wildland Fire Division, under the management of the monument, that forest fire saws are rating dangerous trees for removal.

But the lawsuit alleges that Bandelier never notified that agency to assess the tree that was struck by lightning.

Earlier this year, a fire department examined and “tempered” about 12 trees in the park’s Juniper Campground, but focused on dead trees that were standing upright and bent over high-traffic areas such as paths or picnic areas.

The 70-foot-damaged tree next to the parking lot and up to 23 inches in diameter had a full and healthy canopy with dense green foliage and didn’t appear to be sloping, park officials told investigators after Modlin’s death.

“We have a lot of lightning strikes on the edge of trees,” park ranger Geoff Goins is quoted as saying. “I didn’t think so many trees were struck by lightning here.”

The valet did not waste time chopping and disposing of the fallen tree the day after Modlin’s death, the lawsuit said, but they generated a report that the tree had an external wound from its top to its base due to the callus growth who was over five years old apparently caused by a previous lightning strike. There were two other wounds, one of which was new and was rated “significant” by the second lightning strike.

According to Bandelier’s Standard Operating Instructions for Hazard Tree Management: “Since even healthy trees can fall under extreme weather conditions, the park will attempt to issue visitor warnings when appropriate.” The program aims to protect the public and protect the agency from possible liability .

However, there are a variety of hazards “inherent in a natural environment, which include hazard trees. Visitors and park staff should be aware of these inherent dangers and hold the national park service harmless due to ‘force majeure’. “

On the day the Modlin family visited Bandelier, gusts of wind of up to 58 kilometers per hour were recorded. According to the lawsuit and investigation reports, there were no warnings to the public about the 70-foot tree that fell about 28 feet west of the Atomic City and Frey Trailhead bus stop.

A valet investigator quoted Robert Modlin, an engineer, who said his mother was next to the rental car when they heard the tree crack.

“The most surprising thing for me was how quickly it suddenly got very windy,” said Modlin, who was standing behind the vehicle.

Several bystanders helped him pull his mother out from under the branches of the tree so that he could give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

“I couldn’t hear a breath and its color disappeared immediately,” he said.

Robert Modlen recalled feeling no emotion when rescue workers arrived and tried unsuccessfully to resuscitate his mother.

“There weren’t any tears, it only hit me in the ambulance and I couldn’t stop crying.” He added, “You and I were very close, she was in such good shape for 81.”

He later wondered what he could have done differently when the tree began to fall.

“I thought, why didn’t I pull her out of the way, push her, do something,” he later told investigators. But Robert Modlin said he later had a dream that helped him “come to terms” that he couldn’t save her.

It happened too quickly for him to act, he told investigators. “And if I had approached her, I would have fallen from this tree too.”

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