Judge: Hiker liable for springing traps, but trapper did not prove damages

A Juneau hiker was not justified in setting off two fur-bearing traps after she rescued an ensnared bald eagle, but she won’t owe the trapper any money, a Juneau District Court judge ruled Friday.

Judge Thomas Nave found that trapper John Forrest failed to prove at trial that the hiker caused him any loss of income by springing two of three traps in question unnecessarily.

“It is the conclusion of this court that defendant Ms. Turley is liable to plaintiff Mr. Forrest for any loss due to her unjustified interference with his trap at half mile on the trail but that plaintiff failed to prove any damages,” Nave wrote.

Forrest sued Kathleen K. Turley last month, seeking $5,000 in damages, for springing several of his lawfully set traps on Davies Creek trail in December 2014. The lawsuit did not pertain to the trap that snared the eagle on Dec. 24, but to three other traps that Turley said she sprung on the same trail that day and on Dec. 27 out of safety concerns.

After hearing testimony Monday and closing arguments Thursday, Nave found Turley was justified in springing a marten trap close to the wolverine trap that incidentally caught an eagle. Turley had three dogs with her at the time and tied them up to a bush as she worked for an hour to free the eagle. The eagle later had to be euthanized.

“As a cautionary measure, she sprung that trap to assure that, while she was working, the dogs didn’t get loose and invade that trap adding to the emergency,” Nave wrote. “When evaluating the circumstances and objectively applying facts as the defendant reasonably perceived them, the court finds that she was justified when she rendered the trap near the eagle harmless.”

But, the judge said, it wasn’t necessary for Turley to spring another marten box trap as she hiked back down the trail. She sprung the same trap again — unnecessarily, the judge said — on Dec. 27 as she led a group of Juneau Alpine hikers down the trail at dusk.

Nave said Turley had other options available to her to ensure the safety of her dogs in the first instance and the hikers in the second. She could have leashed her dogs, and, “if she was concerned about that particular trap, she could have placed herself in front of it or asked someone else to do so while all the hikers passed,” Nave wrote of the second instance. “Other alternatives existed.”

Because Turley was found liable for springing those two traps, Nave said she could have owed Forrest money if he had proved he lost income over it. But Nave said he didn’t have a basis to calculate the loss of income.

“During the week in question, he recalls trapping a large beaver and a mink but could not be more specific and had not apparently given the matter much thought until asked (by the court),” Nave wrote. “Better evidence of damages might have been weekly logs of animals taken noting which traps and what portion of the trap line was productive.”

Nave continued, “Mr. Forrest may have caught a marten in the trap one half mile up the trail or he may not. It could be that he has never caught anything in a trap in that particular area.”

The plaintiffs originally sued for $5,000, then lowered that amount to $1,000 just before the trial. Forrest in his testimony Monday said he would be satisfied with $500 to $700 to account for loss of income, and in closing arguments, his attorney Zane Wilson requested between $1,000 and $1,200 to cover both income loss and punitive damages.

Nave declined to award punitive damages, which are designed to essentially punish the defendant for wrongdoing and deter them and others from such conduct in the future.

“The court cannot find by clear and convincing evidence the acts committed by Ms. Turley were outrageous, including acts done with malice or bad motives or they evidenced reckless indifference to the interest of another person,” Nave wrote.

The Empire has reached out to Forrest’s attorney Zane Wilson for comment.

Turley’s attorney, Nicholas Polasky, said he was pleased Turley was not held liable for one of the traps, but disappointed she was found responsible for the other two.

“We are disappointed because we disagree that Ms. Turley ever had any intent to hinder or obstruct trapping,” he told the Empire by email. “And, we continue to believe that trapping that follows the minimum applicable rules is not responsible trapping. But we had a trial, the judge heard all the evidence, Judge Nave is a very good judge, and he made a different decision. We respect that.”

Polasky added that the judge’s decision “split the baby,” in his opinion.

“My client was worried about paying more than $5,000 for something she does not think she did wrong — and she avoided that outcome,” Polasky said. “Mr. Forrest wanted to make a point about how a person should not set off traps — and on two of the three traps he made his point.”

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