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Park Service Must Pay $480,000 To Dead Camper’s Family

February 22, 1985 GMT

PEORIA, Ill. (AP) _ A federal judge on Thursday ordered the National Park Service to pay $480,000 to the family of a man who died when floodwaters from a collapsed dam swept through a campground.

Terry Coates, 36, vice principal at a Peoria elementary school, was vacationing with his family in Rocky Mountain National Park near Estes Park, Colo., when he drowned in the flood that followed the collapse of Lawn Lake Dam on July 15, 1982.

Two other campers also were killed, but their survivors have not sued the government.

Coates’ widow, Rosemary Coates Swanson, who has remarried, filed a $2 million negligence suit against the park service. She contended that when the dam burst nine miles from the campsite, rangers failed to evacuate campers quickly. She also claimed the park never prepared an emergency plan in the event of a flood.

U.S. District Judge Michael Mihm found the park service 60 percent responsible for Coates’ death. Coates was 40 percent responsible for his own death because ″he did not exercise reasonable care in protecting himself,″ he said.

Park rangers erred after the dam burst by presuming a 5-square-mile meadow could hold the rushing water before it reached the camping area, Mihm said.

Had Mihm ruled the government 100 percent liable, Coates’ widow and two children, 11 and 8, could have been awarded up to $800,000 in damages.

″I’m just glad it’s over with,″ said Mrs. Swanson after Mihm’s ruling in the two-day trial, which began Tuesday.

Assistant U.S. Attorney L. Lee Smith said the government likely would appeal the case.

″We thought ... Coates’ negligence was equal to or greater than the government’s negligence,″ said Smith.

Had the parties shared equal responsibility for Coates’ death, no award would have been made, he said.

Smith contended during the trial that Coates disregarded flood warnings and tried to help another camper retrieve her tent.

The camper, Bridget Dorris, 20, of Arlington, Texas, also was killed.The third flood victim was Steven See, 21, of Hilbert, Wis.

Fred Allen, a lawyer for Coates’ family, accused park rangers, three of whom testified for the defense, of acting negligently and of failing to have a safety plan for such a catastrophe.

Coates’ widow testified her family learned of the evacuation order from other campers, not rangers.

Another camper testified that a ranger’s warning was casual and suggested the flooding posed no danger to life.