Mother Appeals Dismissal of Son’s Hiking Death Lawsuit

By BEN NEARY | December 28, 2015

The mother of a man who died on a 2011 backpacking trip to India is appealing a federal judge’s decision to dismiss her lawsuit against a Wyoming training academy.

Elizabeth Brenner of Minnetonka, Minnesota, is pressing her claims against the National Outdoor Leadership School, based in Lander, Wyoming.

Brenner claims the school was negligent in the death of her 20-year-old son, Thomas Plotkin. He slipped while carrying a heavy pack and fell down a 300-foot ravine into a raging river while on a NOLS expedition. His body was never found.

The lawsuit alleged that Plotkin was among a group of hikers who were walking far ahead of their NOLS program leaders in rainy, dark conditions when the accident occurred.

U.S. District Judge Alan B. Johnson of Cheyenne dismissed Brenner’s lawsuit in October. Johnson noted Plotkin had signed agreements acknowledging that the NOLS program involved inherent risks.

“Adults contracting to engage in activities that present extraordinary hazards and challenges should not do so lightly,” Johnson stated in his written opinion. The facts of Plotkin’s death wouldn’t support claims for gross negligence or willful or wanton misconduct, Johnson stated.

Johnson noted that Brenner’s lawsuit alleged that the Indian government conducted an independent investigation of the accident that concluded NOLS group leaders should have alerted police and villagers immediately to search for Plotkin. The report also concluded that it seemed improper for the group to be hiking through rough terrain during the evening under a light drizzle.

Brenner now is appealing Johnson’s ruling to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver. Attempts on Thursday to reach lawyers representing her were not immediately successful. The appeals court this week set a mediation conference for early January.

Bruce Palmer, director of admissions and marketing for NOLS in Lander, Wyoming said Thursday that the school believes Johnson made the right call.

“We never felt that there was merit to this case, we agreed with what the court said and obviously the plaintiffs did not, and so the process continues,” Palmer said.

More than 230,000 people have graduated from NOLS courses since the school’s founding in 1965, according to Palmer. Programs commonly involve grueling backcountry expeditions.

About 4,500 students each year participate in field-based programs similar to the one Plotkin enrolled in, Palmer said earlier this year. Other programs involve classroom study on subjects such as wilderness medicine.

Plotkin’s was the latest of 12 fatalities involving NOLS students in the history of the school, Palmer said. He said the majority of fatalities happened prior to about 1980. He said no lawsuits against the school stemming from the fatalities have been successful.

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