CHICAGO (STMW) — The father of a Lake Forest teen killed by a falling tree while on a student camping trip near Jackson Hole, Wyo., last year filed a wrongful death lawsuit Wednesday against the trip operators.
Elizabeth Burns, of Lake Forest, was helping set up camp in Wyoming’s Teton Wilderness about 66 feet away from the base of a 75-foot tree when the tree fell and struck her. She never regained consciousness, witnesses said.
Her father, Michael Burns, filed a federal wrongful death lawsuit Wednesday against Wilderness Ventures, the commercial backpacking company based in Jackson Hole, Wyo., that operated the tour.
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The suit claims two Wilderness Ventures employees supervising the trip were trying to hoist two 100-pound bags of food and other smelly items up a 75-foot pine tree — a bear-proofing measure required by trip rules — when the tree snapped, then gave way, striking Burns.
The lodge pole pine trees in the area had shallow roots and many were weakened by insect infestation, the suit said. Dead trees — like the one that fell and fatally struck the Lake Forest High School student — were known as “widow makers” because of their propensity to topple, according to the suit.
Police received a satellite telephone call at 2:45 p.m. July 18 from Wilderness Ventures that Burns had been severely injured at the campsite about 50 miles northeast of Jackson Hole. Rescuers flew to the site in a helicopter, but Burns was pronounced dead at the scene at 4:35 p.m.
She suffered numerous injuries but the suspected cause of death is blunt force trauma to her head, according to the Teton County Sheriff’s Office. The tree was 24 inches in diameter at its base, but the portion that struck Burns was 9 inches in diameter.
Police are treating her death as an accident, sheriff’s Capt. Tripp Wilson said.
Burns, who would have been a junior at Lake Forest, is the daughter of Michael Burns, a former Lake Forest alderman. She was formerly a member of the school’s pom pon squad.
Burns was with a group of 14, including a dozen 16-year-olds and two adult leaders. On its website, Wilderness Ventures bills itself “The Worldwide Leader in Student Outdoor Adventures.”
After the accident, park rangers hiked out the remaining members of the camping group to a mountain lodge, where they were met by crisis counselors from the Grand Teton National Park.
The suit blames Wilderness Ventures for failing to properly train and supervise its employees, using a tree they should have known was unsafe and for not taking other measures to safely store the trip’s food supply.
The four-count suit claims wrongful death, negligence and willful and wanton conduct. It seeks at least $300,000 in damages.
A spokesperson for Wilderness Ventures was not available for comment Wednesday afternoon.