$28-Million Suit Filed in Mauling of Girl at Park

Times Staff Writer

One day before a mountain lion mauled a 5-year-old El Toro girl in a south county park last March 23, officials warned some park visitors of imminent danger of cat attacks on humans, a lawsuit claims.

But the victim, Laura Small, and her parents were not alerted while visiting the Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park, according to the lawsuit filed in Orange County Superior Court late Friday.

For several weeks before the attack, a specific lion was known to have "repeatedly approached, stalked and confronted park visitors," the lawsuit alleges.

County officials could not be reached for comment.

The child was attacked by a young mountain lion that sprang from the brush in the park north of San Juan Capistrano. A lion believed to be the one that attacked the girl was shot and killed the next day, and the park was closed for nearly a month while the area was searched for other lions.

The Smalls' suit, filed against the county, state, various local and state agencies and the National Audubon Society, seeks $28 million.

The lawsuit alleges both negligence and incompetence on the part of government wildlife management officials in the park.

Filed by San Jose attorney Richard J. Staskus, the suit claims that park management provided "inaccurate, false, and misleading" information designed to give potential visitors the impression that the park was safe.

Laura has probably lost sight in her right eye, Staskus said Monday. "She still has partial paralysis of the upper extremities and walks with an impaired gait," he said. "It appears her right eye is non-functional."

"She has probably been through six surgical procedures, and I'm sure there are at least three or four more," he said.

Earlier this year, the Smalls filed claims directly against the state and county seeking damages. When they were denied, Staskus filed the lawsuit.

The filed documents also name the National Audubon Society because, the suit claims, it "voluntarily exercised control, direction, supervision and management over mountain lions found in Caspers and surrounding areas."

But the society's supervision and management of mountain lion populations in the park and nearby areas was negligent, the suit alleges.

The Audubon Society owns and operates the private Starr Ranch Wildife Sanctuary "for all wildlife" next to Caspers Park, Assistant Manager Peter L. DeSimone said, but he declined any immediate comment on the lawsuit.

Last month, the Board of Supervisors voted $72,000 for a census and study of mountain lions in south county. It is being conducted by the National Audubon Society.

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