A federal judge in San Francisco is considering whether a group of families, who made legal claims against the federal government, Yosemite National Park and the former park concessioner Delaware North related to the 2012 hantavirus outbreak that sickened 10 and resulted in three deaths, will get to move forward with their case.
The outbreak occurred more than five years ago among people who stayed in wood-frame walled tent cabins at what used to be called Curry Village, below Glacier Point in east Yosemite Valley. Today Curry Village is called Half Dome Village.
National Park Service staff in 2012 said hantavirus can be contracted from contact with airborne particles of deer mice urine, droppings or saliva. At least nine confirmed cases of hantavirus were linked to overnight stays in June and July 2012 in Curry Village's “signature tent cabins.” A tenth case involved a visitor who stayed in multiple High Sierra camps.
The victims who died included Dr. Amit Jha, of Alameda County, and Bruno Garisto, of Lewisburg, Pa. The third victim who died was a resident of Kanawha County, West Virginia, whose name and gender were not disclosed by Kanawha-Charleston Health Department officials.
Plaintiffs who originally took action in December 2014 against the federal government, Yosemite National Park and Delaware North included Jha’s wife, Dr. Rupal Badani, of Fremont; Garisto’s wife, Carolyn Garisto; individuals who claimed they were seriously sickened with lingering health and financial impacts, including Christopher Harrison, a Bay Area engineer, Roger Mann, of Orange County, and Cathy Carrillo, a Chino Hills resident who said she suffered near-death health complications.
Some settlements reached
Some plaintiffs, including Mann and Carillo, have reached settlements with Delaware North and requested dismissal of their actions against Delaware North and the federal government. Their attorneys could not be reached for comment.
Glen White with Delaware North corporate communications declined to comment Monday.
Delaware North was replaced as park concessioner in March 2016 by Aramark Corporation of Philadelphia.
Courthouse News Service reported Friday that Delaware North has filed a cross-claim against the federal government, arguing that if the Buffalo, New York, based corporation is held at fault for the plaintiffs’ injuries, “the U.S. bears all or part of that fault.”
Speaking for Yosemite National Park and the federal government as defendants in the case, Adam Bain of the U.S. Department of Justice said it wasn’t the responsibility of the park service to check tent cabins for mice. Bain said it was Delaware North’s job to thoroughly inspect tent cabins.
U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney is presiding on the case. She is expected to make a ruling in the next few weeks.
‘Fancy tent cabins’
Chesney said Friday the case against the federal government hinges on whether it had a duty to perform regular inspections of what she called “fancy tent cabins,” Courthouse News Service reported.
In a court filing for the Friday action before Chesney, background for the ongoing legal action shows plaintiffs’ attorneys claim the federal government and Delaware North were negligent by allowing the tent cabins to be built, by failing to adequately test for pests and maintain the cabins, and by failing to notify people about the potential danger of hantavirus in the park.
Hantavirus was detected in the park in 2000 and 2010 when campers staying in the Tuolumne Meadows area became ill.
Plaintiffs’ attorneys said a Delaware North project manager with no engineering or architectural experience designed the so-called signature tent cabins.
“They had a double-wall configuration, with an inner wall of foam insulation, an outer wall of canvas, and a space in between,” the court filing states. “For purposes of ventilation, they
also had an air-gap at the peak of the ceiling where, by design, the insulation did not meet.”
Delaware North built a total of 91 signature tent cabins in about three weeks. They proved to be attractive to deer mice, which entered wall spaces through multiple openings in the outer canvas and nested in the foam insulation, the court filing states.
Deer mice nesting
Attorneys for the plaintiffs alleged Delaware North had knowledge of deer mice nesting in the signature tent cabins for years before the 2012 outbreak, but initially took no steps to end the infestation and ignored its own policies requiring inspection for and exclusion of mice from guest accommodations.
Furthermore, Delaware North ignored recommendations by public agencies to warn of the risk of mouse intrusions, according to the plaintiffs.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs also allege Delaware North “not only failed to warn of the risk, but actively tried to conceal the hantavirus risk from guests,” the court filing states.
Between 2009 and 2012, Delaware North maintenance staff in Yosemite removed mouse nests from the walls of signature tent cabins on numerous occasions and developed a hantavirus policy. Despite this, Delaware North's general manager for Curry Village chose not to give a warning even after the 2012 outbreak “because he felt guests would cancel reservations or
request refunds,” the court filing states.
Staff in Yosemite National Park closed all 91 signature tent cabins in late August 2012. A lawsuit later filed by Garisto’s widow showed a Delaware North official in Yosemite bemoaning potential lost revenue of $1.3 million from Curry Village for September 2012 in an email to park Deputy Superintendent Woody Smeck.
Dismantled and removed
All 91 signature tent cabins in the Boystown part of Curry Village were dismantled and removed beginning in December 2012.
Reached Monday, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Jim Collins, of San Jose, said Chesney dismissed the claim he was arguing, a products liability claim against Delaware North, for designing, manufacturing and constructing the signature tent cabins.
Chesney said Friday she had trouble with the plaintiffs’ claim of fraud because fraud requires “detrimental reliance,” Courthouse New Service reported. “I’m trying to find out what exactly was supposed to be known and what exactly wasn’t told.”
The first signature tent cabins opened to guests in 2009. Today, Aramark calls them canvas tent cabins. They come heated and unheated, have room for two to five guests, and feature wood frames, wrapped and covered with canvas, wood floors and wood doors. Heated canvas tent cabins are renting from $79.45 a night, and unheated ones are renting from $45.45 a night in early February, according to Aramark.
Aside from the 2012 hantavirus outbreak, two other cases have been reported in Yosemite, one in 2000, and one in 2010. Neither case was fatal, and both occurred in the High Sierra region at Tuolumne Meadows.
Hantavirus is not related to norovirus, a highly contagious gastrointestinal illness that may have sickened about half of a group of 190 students and teachers from a Santa Monica middle school who visited Yosemite a year ago in late January 2017.
Visitors to the Yosemite region have contracted other diseases in recent years. In August 2015, state and federal health officials investigated a case of human plague that may have originated in the Stanislaus National Forest or Yosemite National Park.
Assessments were conducted at locations including the forest’s popular Rainbow Pool picnic area and the Crane Flat campground in Yosemite, Forest Service and Park Service officials said.
A child from Los Angeles County who visited the Stanislaus National Forest and camped at Crane Flat in mid-July became ill and was hospitalized, state Department of Public Health officials said. Human plague is unrelated to hantavirus.
Names dispute unresolved
It’s been 23 months since the National Park Service changed the names of several landmarks in Yosemite National Park to try to deflate Delaware North’s claims to trademarks and intellectual property rights.
The legal dispute between the government and the hospitality contractor remains unsettled.
Curry Village in Yosemite Valley traces its roots to 1899, but since March 1, 2016, it’s known as Half Dome Village. Wawona Hotel, built south of the valley in 1876, is called Big Trees Lodge. The Ahwahnee, billed as a grand hotel below Royal Arches and completed in 1927, is dubbed Majestic Yosemite Hotel.
Delaware North, the former park concessioner replaced by Aramark in March 2016, claims it is owed in the neighborhood of $51.2 million, based on an appraisal it commissioned for 32 trademarks, internet domain names and other assets.
Public outrage spread online two years ago and in the park before workers in Yosemite Valley began covering up names at the historic Ahwahnee and Curry Village.
On Monday, White with Delaware North corporate communications said “Please refer to our previous statements on the trademarks case.”
A year ago, White said, “We continue to call on the National Park Service and Aramark to end their needless use of temporary names at Yosemite and to restore the historic and beloved names by accepting our longstanding offer of a free assignment or license of the trademarks until the court case is resolved.”
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter @GuyMcCarthy.