Injured Hiker Charged Roughly $10,000 For Mountain Rescue

1800px-Loon_Panorama_annotatedWe have previously discussed the trend of citizens being charged for rescue in federal and state parkland. I have always been a critic of the practice because rescues are part of the costs of maintaining these parks. Many volunteers participate in such rescues and largely oppose the charging of the victims, even when they made negligent decisions. The latest is Edward Bacon, 59 year old man from Michigan, who is appealing the imposition of a $9,300 bill for his rescue at the White Mountain National Forest.

Let’s be clear at the outset. As many of you know, I am a lifelong backpacker and outdoor enthusiast. In my view, Edward Bacon is clearly negligent. I have hiked the White Mountain National Forest, which is gorgeous but has some very challenging areas. The fact that Bacon was hiking alone (cited by the government) is not in my view negligent. I am a solo hiker and backpacker. I love the solitude and used to backpack for a couple weeks at a time alone. However, the other aspects of the hike were questionable in 2012. He went on a five day backpacking trip to a rugged area. He took this rugged course despite various physical problems, including four hip surgeries since 2005 and an artificial hip that had dislocated twice in the previous year. He also reportedly needed two canes. Then there was the weather. The forecast was for high winds and heavy rain but Bacon pushed ahead regardless along an exposed ridgeline.

Again, I am sympathetic with the desire to hike alone and I like remote areas. I have long dreaded the day when I will not be able to do challenging hikes and I admit that I push myself a bit much. However, I would not have taken this hike in these conditions. The worse part of such poor decision making is that it can put rescuers in danger. In this case, the rescuers from Fish and Game, the Pemigewasset Valley Search and Rescue Team, the Mountain Rescue Service and Appalachian Mountain Club responded. They had to carry Bacon for four miles of rough terrain with 70 mile per hour winds in the rain.

That was dumb. Really dumb. Indeed, I initially was so ticked by the report that I thought about an exception in such cases for clearly negligent actions. However, I still agree with the rescuer organizations that oppose such charges. People in peril do not want to be injured and usually over-estimate their capabilities. It happens. Yet, we all enjoy these natural areas and understand that it comes with risks. We do not want people to be reluctant to call for help in fear of fines.

I make an exception for those who break the law and get themselves into trouble. Many years ago, I testified with Bobby Unser in a hearing that touched on a fine that he was forced to pay after taking snowmobiles in a wilderness area in violation of regulations. Despite the rangers risking their lives in a massive snowstorm, Unser objected to be given a small ticket and fine. I was not just unsympathetic. I was incredulous. He deserved to be fined and his only response should have been profuse apology and thanks.

In this case, a judge in District Court in Concord, N.H. found that negligence warranted the imposition of costs against Bacon. Yet, most such accidents involve some level of negligence. You can take a risky leap or an ill-conceived technical climb.

Bacon had hiked the area before. He had proper equipment. That day’s hike was only 5 or so miles. Yes, he had a bad hip and should have been hiking with a partner, but I do not view a solo hike to be manifestly outrageous.

What really disturbs me is that the state is considering the sale of a $25 safe hiker card that is really an insurance plan. Those who have the card will not be charged for rescues, even when negligent. That card is likely to make calls for help less likely by many who will assume that they will be charged. Parks will end up like insurance where people do not report accidents because they do not want to see their rates increased. We pay for these parks to enjoy them. Fees are going up despite that fact that these parks are hands down the most successful government programs on the books. While the number of people enjoying these parks would suggest that we should be expanding parks and resources, the opposite is true. Fee are raising and services are falling.

New Hampshire is heading in the wrong direction. There should be no charge for rescues. Any costs can be folded into the costs of maintaining these parks and possibly passed on in the form of entrance fees. However, in my view, this is a basic role of state governments to maintain parks and the various costs associated with them. We should be expanded our parks and not adding charges given the number of increasing visitors. To go to Yellowstone these days is to face literal traffic jams due to the limited space. We seem to be moving toward a system where basic services are now being treated as luxuries or surcharges by the government.

Bacon is not an easy case to be sure but, in my view, he should not be charged.

What do you think?

62 thoughts on “Injured Hiker Charged Roughly $10,000 For Mountain Rescue”

  1. The National Park Service does not charge for rescues. They do charge for any medical services because it is deemed as a private service function.

  2. Chalen said:
    “As far as the bigger fish, you are right. There are so many more things bigger than this.”

    Not if it’s your family member that dies during a rescue attempt because his team lacks the funding for proper training.

    That’s when the “fish” get up close & personal.

  3. David M said:
    ” Call some friends who will come help you out and not charge you $9,000 to do it.”

    Yep. That ought to solve the problem: put a few more amateurs on the Cliffside. They can drop in via their own personal helicopter.

    1. PatricParamedic wrote: “Yep. That ought to solve the problem: put a few more amateurs on the Cliffside. They can drop in via their own personal helicopter.”

      Let’s keep the facts straight. There was no Cliffside and no helicopter. The man jumped to a rock and dislocated his hip. If you are going to get a $9,000 bill, you might as well call two friends and pay them the $9,000.

  4. It is foolish the government charges this person for rescue, regardless of negligence. The amount of people visiting the parks (and by extension, paying to visit them) versus the number of people who need professional rescue is not a valid ratio.

    I can understand if every 3rd person who visits the park has to be rescued at a cost of US10,000$, then I would say charge them. But the ratio of park income to rescue expenses doesn’t justify this charge.


    1. Chalen – in most cases the funds do not go to the park but to the general fund of the city, county, state, federal government.

        1. There’s also the issue, alluded to by Prof. Turley, of negligence being the threshold for payment. Was it negligent for employees to work on the 90th floor of either of the WTC towers on September 11, 2001? Shouldn’t they have reasonably known such a disaster might have happened in light of the truck bombing eight years earlier? Why should the people of the City of New York and federal tax dollars have to pay for what could be considered the employees’ negligence after so many firefighters risked and gave their lives to rescue them? In short, there are better ways to save money, and charging someone who may or may not be recreating negligently isn’t one of them. There are bigger fish to fry, like the policy and expense of global destabilization and acquisition we’ve always seemed to acquiescing to.

          1. stevegroen – you raise an interesting point. However, city taxes subsumes that the fire department will try to save you if a problem occurs.

            1. Isn’t it the same for all government search and rescue? When there’s notice of the need, they do it whether you want them to or not. That’s what they’re paid for. In the New Hampshire case, they charged him for it.

              By the way,privatization’s no better a remedy IMHO. I knew a fellow once who started a business rescuing derelict vessels on San Francisco Bay. The law then (back in the ’70s) required fees to be paid to the rescuer if the Coast Guard couldn’t get there (something like that, anyway, and it may still be the law). One night, he was allegedly caught untying lines from moorings to increase revenue. (Income was tight in those days.) I write “allegedly” because he flew by night when the warrant issued and was never heard from again. If mountain SAR is privatized, I think we’ll see more of that.

          2. I agree, and that’s one reason I didn’t address the negligence since it is one big gray area that would be an endless argument with no end in sight. That’s why I thought a blanket policy would be better than case by case basis.

            As far as the bigger fish, you are right. There are so many more things bigger than this.

  5. I don’t think he should be fined. Let the government get out of the rescue business and let private organizations do it. There are plenty of hiking and outdoor organizations that can pool resources and support rescue operations. In Florida here we have several organizations that boaters pay to have rescue services available for when you are on your boat, or even when you simply have a trailer break down while pulling your boat.

    Edward Bacon is an experienced hiker with hundreds of hikes in the New Hampshire mountains. He had hiked the same area twice since 2012, and the weather reports he received indicated he could complete the hike before the rains came. He trained specifically for this hike in a park with 250 foot hills. His doctors cleared him for hiking. I just don’t see the negligence.

    The State collects fees from boaters and off road vehicles to fund rescues. If they don’t collect enough, then cut down on the rescue efforts, or ask for volunteers. I don’t think it is right to have Mr. Bacon pay the salaries of the people who came to rescue him who would have been paid anyway if they were not trying to rescue him.

    This case teaches me one thing. Don’t call the government to help with any rescue. Call some friends who will come help you out and not charge you $9,000 to do it.

  6. We have a similar situation in aviation. At HOU when I was flight instructing in multiengine aircraft, part of the training is to shut down one engine and restart it. We had one plane that was reluctant to do this in the air. So that meant that one time I came back into Hobby with one engine feathered. The tower saw this, and declared an emergency, even though it was not. So all the equipment rolled and a big scene ensued. Then our flight school got a bill for $300 for the “emergency”! From then on, I landed at an uncontrolled airport, and started the engine, and flew back.

  7. Google RNLI and take a peek at a rescue service that has been around for over 150 years. 600 + members’ lives lost rescuing people, funded by charity and legacies, thousands rescued, no charging because it’s a charitable organization.

    The question whether or not to charge for a rescue necessitated due to negligence on the the part of whomever is being rescued has been around for a while.

    In the case of Great Britains RNLI and Mountain Rescue Service, because they are charitable institutions and not allowed to make a profit, they can’t charge.

    Government/tax paid systems are responsible to both the person(s) being rescued as well as those who fund them. In this case the issue should be decided in court, which it was, and so be it. This is the gray area between the ideal and the real, kind of like the ever discussed free speech issue. When a situation necessitates going to court for a ‘judgement call’, one side or the other will win and one side or the other will lose. There will be a perceived restriction on freedom or a necessary guarding of the general public interest.

    I’m still waiting for JT to comment on Rick Scott.

  8. The ‘government’ does not ‘maintain’ the wilderness. If and when you go there, you’re pretty much on your own. That’s what the sign says at the gate. You can’t miss it. So if you go in expecting 100% safety, you are already nuttier than a candy bar.

    Look up fatal bear attacks in national forests sometime. Then look up the successful lawsuits that followed. Report back with your findings.

  9. As a rescuer who has responded to just over 20,000 911 calls, I have to weigh in on this one. The realities are many, a few of which are these:
    1. Rescue is more expensive than it has ever been, and technical rescue costs are zooming right off the chart. A ground rescue vehicle with an ALS team can cost $2000 every time it goes out the door. And because there is nothing more dangerous to climb into than a rescue helicopter, the cost to operate one can be $10,000 a day. These machines do not run on altruism.
    2. The population boom means ever more city folks out looking for places to play, with a never-ending string of brain-burped risk takers pushing the envelop. Stupidity should cost the stupid.
    3. The idea of ‘hiker insurance’ will almost certainly become a reality at some point, in the same way that 911 ‘false alarm’ fees have become regretfully necessary: they place at least some burden of safety on the wayward public, who need more babysitters than ever. A tiered ‘if you do this it will cost this’ fee list at the entry gate would work wonders.
    There are few things more ridiculous – or sadly, ubiquitous – than an entire population running around, leaning over cliffs and snapping their own goofy selfie. They fall off canyon rims and hot air balloons and cause others to die in their stead.

    What we have now is illogical because it is unsustainable.

    1. Maybe we should rely only on volunteer SAR in the back country? There are plenty of folks in this area who gain non-pecuniary satisfaction from this type of work. I’m a bit tired of Marlboro Man condescension arguing for another cottage industry when last I heard everyone makes mistakes. Even him. If we’re going to waste money, there is no better place than the wilderness where Americans can actually utilize the benefits and protections of their tax dollars.. Speaking of unsustainable, how about literally hundreds of billions of dollars spent on global destruction and acquisition? Or, pondering unsustainable mistakes, perhaps we could divert federal tax dollars by building one less presidential library: 43’s has only a coloring book in it. Hiker insurance? Will it next be 20 lashes for tossing one’s chewing gum on the sidewalk? Let me breathe the air!

  10. After the government is encouraged to bill visitors for rescues, the next court challenge might be the reasonableness of the rescue costs.

    Actually, that was part of the court challenge in this case. From the NH Supreme Court decision:

    Finally, the defendant argues that the court’s damages award was improper because it included wages and mileage for on-duty Department officers who would have been paid regardless of their participation in the rescue operation. In essence, he claims that the damages provide a windfall to the Department. We disagree.

    The trial court awarded $9,186.38 in damages to the Department, plus costs and interest. At trial, Kneeland testified that this amount represented the Department’s costs for the fifteen personnel who participated in the rescue, and included overtime, mileage, and benefits.

    We reject the defendant’s argument that this sum provides a windfall to the Department because certain officers were on duty and thus would have been paid regardless of their participation in his rescue. Not only does this argument fail to take into account the overtime paid to Department employees who would not have worked in the absence of the rescue, but it also ignores the fact that, by being diverted to the rescue operation, Department employees were unable to perform their other assigned duties.

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    Read more: Black Oak Arkansas – Jim Dandy Lyrics | MetroLyrics

  12. Nobody will like what I have to say: this society has a screwed-up attitude towards death. If the weather is bad, no rescue. If conditions put rescuers at risk, no rescue. Let nature take its course. It’s always been that way, except for the last few decades. Get used to it.

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