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Countywide : Negotiation OKd on Laura Small Award

Under strong pressure from a three-judge appellate panel, the County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday dropped two years of opposition to discussing a settlement of the $2-million jury verdict won by a girl who was mauled by a mountain lion in a county park.

Meeting in closed session and without taking a formal vote, the supervisors directed the county’s hired attorney, Barry L. Allen, to meet with attorneys for the injured girl, Laura Small, and Justice David G. Sills, presiding judge of the state’s 4th District Court of Appeal.

“We met in executive session and they did approve going to a settlement conference as recommended by the justices,” Allen said. “I feel comfortable with it. I have no problem going to a settlement conference.”

The Small family’s attorney, Wylie A. Aitken, said his clients have been willing to discuss a settlement since before the 1991 trial, but the county has steadfastly refused.

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Laura Small, then 5, was at Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park in 1986 when a cougar seized her head in its mouth and shook her. She was left partially paralyzed.

On August 23, 1991, a jury awarded the child $2,018,638 in damages after a five-week trial, determining that the county was negligent in failing to protect her. The same jury awarded $75,000 to Laura’s mother, Sue Mattern-Small, who witnessed the attack, for pain and suffering.

The Board of Supervisors voted to appeal the verdicts a month later. Tuesday’s decision to discuss a settlement also pertains to the smaller award to Mattern-Small.

At the jury trial, county officials acknowledged that they were aware that mountain lions had been seen in the park and that they had met to discuss the situation, but had taken no precautions. One ranger testified that when he was asked by the Smalls at the park entrance whether there was any danger, he assured them there was none.

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Aitken said he was willing to try once again to resolve the matter.

“Any good lawyer would want to sit down and talk settlement,” he said. The Small family “would just as well put this behind Laura and let them get on with their lives.” He said he hoped Allen would attend the conference to “negotiate in good faith,” and not “merely to attend and go through the motions.”

Allen and Aitken said that no date has been scheduled for the conference, but that it will probably be held next month.

Last week, three judges from the 4th District Court of Appeal who were hearing the case strongly urged Allen to discuss a settlement.

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