By Doyice Cotten
The following recent news story recounts a recent California incident that is similar to a 2012 case in which a young female intern was attacked and injured by a chimpanzee:
SAN FRANCISCO — A 24-year-old intern killed by an African lion at a California wildlife sanctuary died suddenly after the big cat broke her neck, a coroner said on Thursday as investigators probed why the worker had been inside the animal’s enclosure.
The Cat Haven sanctuary east of Fresno remained closed on Thursday, a day after Dianna Hanson was killed by a 350-lb male Barbary lion named Cous Cous that attacked her inside a pen. Hanson was from the Seattle area.
“The young lady did not suffer because she died almost instantly from a fractured neck,” Fresno County Coroner Dr. David Hadden told Reuters.
An autopsy conducted on Thursday showed bite and claw marks on Hanson from “the lion playing with the body like a cat would play with a mouse,” Hadden said.
The coroner also said the lion escaped its cage to kill Hanson while she was cleaning the enclosure.
Kristen Howard was more fortunate than Dianna Hanson; in 2008, Kristen was attacked by a chimpanzee that entered the area she was cleaning through a door that was supposed to be locked at all times. The chimp jumped on her back and bit her numerous times, including biting off most of a thumb. The chimp then escaped and as Kristen was trying to get to the interns’ residence, she was attacked again.
Kristen had signed a liability waiver that read:
“Waiver and Release of Liability for [defendant]
“1. I understand that my execution of this Waiver and Release is a prerequisite for coming to the sanctuary. I further understand that there are risks and dangers inherent for being at the sanctuary.
“2. I understand that in order to be allowed to be around the chimpanzees, big cats, and on the sanctuary I agree to assume all risks and to release and hold harmless [defendant] and their officers, employees, volunteers, and interns.
“3. I intend by this Waiver and Release to release, in advance, and to waive my rights and discharge all of the persons and entities mentioned above, from any and all claims for death, personal injury, or property damage which I may have, or which may hereafter accrue to me as a result of my participation on the sanctuary, even though this liability may arise from negligence or carelessness on the part of the persons or entities being released, from dangerous or defective property, or equipment owned, maintained or controlled by them or because of their possible liability without fault. I understand and agree that this Waiver and Release is binding.
“4. I have carefully read this Waiver and Release and fully understand its contents. If I am under 18 years of age, my parent or legal guardian has completely reviewed this Waiver and Release, understands and consents to its terms, and authorizes my participation by his/her signature below. I am aware that this is a RELEASE OF LIABILITY and a contract between me and the persons and entities mentioned above and I sign of my own free will.”
The waiver was in the internship manual as was a disclaimer stating that plaintiff was not an employee.
“I know that [defendant’s] company policies and other related documents do not form a contract of employment and are not a guarantee by [defendant] of the conditions and benefits that are described within them. Nevertheless, the provisions of such policies are incorporated into the acknowledgment, and I agree that I shall abide by its provisions.
“I also am aware that [defendant], at any time, may on reasonable notice, change, add to, or delete from the provisions of the company policies.”
In general, waivers signed by employees are not enforceable because of the economic hold that the employer has over an employee. This rule, however, does not generally apply to part-time employees, volunteers, and, in this case, interns. The usual rationale in cases such as this is that such a waiver is not against public policy since the party does not depend upon the position for his or her livelihood.
Plaintiff sued (Howard v. Chimps, Inc., 2012 Ore. App. LEXIS 986) alleging negligence and gross negligence. She argued that the waiver violated public policy, that the waiver was not clear and unequivocal, and that the release was procured by misrepresentation because she was falsely assured that she would not have contact with the chimpanzees and because the defendant failed to disclose prior incidents in which chimps had injured people. The record showed that chimps had injured employees, volunteers, and others on at least five occasions.
The court held that the waiver protected Chimps, Inc. against the negligence claims. Regarding the gross negligence claim, the court stated that the plaintiff failed to show that the defendant acted with reckless disregard of safety or indifference to the probable consequences of its acts; hence, no objectively reasonable juror could find gross negligence.
The parallel between the recent lion attack and the chimpanzee attack is striking. Both were volunteer interns, not employees, both loved animals, both were doing their duty, and both were attacked by an animal that gained access through a door that was supposed to be secured.
In another report of the lion attack incident, it was stated that the usual method is to go into a small enclosure, leave the food, get out, then let the animals inside from a larger enclosure. According to the sanctuary’s guidelines, caregivers should never be inside with the big cats. Nicole Paquette, vice president of wildlife for the Humane Society of the United States, said “It’s completely irresponsible to allow someone to go into the enclosure.” Authorities did not say why two volunteers were left unsupervised to tend the animals.
In still another report, family members were reported to believe the facility followed safety protocols and the death was a tragic accident. In that report, the following information was given:
Investigators were focusing on the cage door that the 550-pound animal managed to escape through to reach the volunteer intern.
“The lion had been fed, the young woman was cleaning the large enclosure, and the lion was in the small cage,” Hadden said. “The gate of the cage was partially open, which allowed the lion called Cous Cous to lift it up with his paw.”
Hadden said the lion then ran at Hanson.
Hanson was talking with a co-worker on a cellphone in the moments before she was killed, the coroner said. The co-worker became concerned when the conversation ended abruptly and Hanson failed to call back. The co-worker then called authorities when she went to check on Hanson.
The Oregon appellate court ruled against Howard and in favor of Chimps, Inc. in affirming the trial court’s granting of summary judgment for Chimps, Inc. It will be interesting to follow the lion attack incident to see (1) if a lawsuit is filed, (2) if the animal park required the young intern to sign a liability waiver, and (3) if the waiver protects the animal park.
Photo Credit: Thanks to Chi King at http://www.flickr.com/photos/davelau/767256229/sizes/m/