Cougar Attack Settlement Costs O.C. $1.5 Million


A 12-year-old El Toro girl partially paralyzed from being mauled by a mountain lion in a county park will receive $1 million in payments over her lifetime, according to a tentative settlement reached Thursday with Orange County.

The settlement is expected to end a painful ordeal for the family that began in 1986 when a cougar leaped from the bushes in the Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park and grabbed then-5-year-old Laura Small’s head in its mouth while she and her mother were searching for tadpoles.

A hiker alerted by the mother’s screams beat the big cat with a stick until it released the girl.


The Smalls successfully sued the county, arguing that park officials knew the potential for mountain lion attacks but did nothing. When the county challenged the $2-million jury award, the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana urged the county to settle the case.

In a conference Thursday, both parties agreed to a $1.5-million settlement. Donald Small, the girl’s father, said their attorney will get about $500,000 of that.

Donald Small said the settlement was “not what we had hoped to get, but we’re happy it’s over.” After “7 1/2 years, going through all this, she’s kind of put things on the back burner and gone on with her life.”

Laura Small was blinded in her right eye, suffered brain damage and was left partially paralyzed in the attack.

“She still will require periodic medical checkups and physical therapy. She may require future surgery,” her father said.

She is “very aware of what’s been going on” with her lawsuit, he said.


Orange County Board of Supervisors Chairman Harriett M. Wieder said Thursday she fears the settlement establishes a legal precedent that leaves the county “more vulnerable for additional lawsuits.”

“The county was worried all along that we would be opening up a Pandora’s box in cases like this,” Wieder said. “But I don’t think you can put a judgment on what happened to the little girl.”

The settlement will ensure the girl’s future financial security, her attorney said Thursday.

“The real advantage for Laura is this is a way of ensuring the money will always be there, her future is secure and her medical bills, college costs will be covered,” said attorney Wylie A. Aitken, who represents the Small family. “This case was really never about money, but Laura’s security.”

The Smalls’ suit accused the county of negligence by not warning people about the threat of mountain lion attacks in the largely rural park near Cleveland National Forest.

During the trial, park employees testified they had seen “unusual” behavior by the cougars before the attack on the girl. Meetings were held to discuss how to respond, but park visitors were not informed about any potential dangers, according to court testimony.

Seven months after the cougar attacked Laura, 6-year-old Justin Mellon of Huntington Beach was mauled by a mountain lion in Caspers Park a short distance away.

A jury in 1991 awarded the Small family more than $2 million in damages. The county appealed the verdict, arguing that the county could not be held responsible for such accidents on its property.

After the jury award, the county ordered the park closed to minors, an act that enraged the Smalls, who accused the county of trying to evade its responsibility in their case. The county acknowledged taking the action to avoid future liability and financial exposure in the wake of the jury verdict.

During oral arguments before the 4th District Court of Appeal in Santa Ana last month, a panel of justices including Justice Edward J. Wallin urged the county to negotiate a settlement in the case.

Justice David G. Sills, presiding justice of that court, was expected to oversee the negotiations between the parties Thursday. But retired Justice Jack Trotter said he presided during the settlement conference at Sills’ request.

Trotter said he believed he was asked to take over negotiations after questions were raised about a party honoring Aitken that Sills and Wallin attended while the Small case was pending before the court.

However, Sills and Wallin, who was a roast master at the Aitken event, have rejected any suggestion that there was anything improper about their presence at the party.

Both also maintained that they are scrupulous about avoiding discussions about pending cases.

The settlement, which is subject to approval by an Orange County Superior Court judge, involves an upfront payment of about $650,000, Trotter said. Upon turning 18, Laura Small would receive three lump sums ranging from $100,000 to $300,000 and monthly payments for the rest of her life, he said.

Trotter and Aitken said the county would also benefit from the settlement because it is less than the original jury verdict.

“I think it’s a good settlement for everyone involved,” Trotter said.

Mountain Lion Attack, Aftermath

* March 23, 1986: On a Sunday outing to Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park near San Juan Capistrano, Laura Michele Small, 5, of El Toro is attacked by a mountain lion. The next day an adolescent male lion believed to have been the one that attacked the girl is tracked and killed. The park is closed for three weeks.

* October 10, 1986: The girl’s parents, Donald and Susan Small, file a $28-million lawsuit in Orange County Superior Court against the county, which owns and operates Caspers Park.

* Oct. 19, 1986: Six-year-old Justin Mellon of Huntington Beach is mauled by a mountain lion at Caspers Park near where Laura Small was attacked. Caspers Park is closed for 60 days while the Orange County Board of Supervisors discuss what to do about the 7,500-acre wilderness park.

* Oct. 29, 1986: The Board of Supervisors agrees to reopen Caspers Park under rules restricting public access.

* September, 1987: The Board of Supervisors allocates $154,000 for a study to learn more about the local mountain lion population.

* Feb. 8, 1989: Orange County loses its last attempt to have the Smalls’ suit dismissed.

* July, 1991: The lawsuit goes to trial in Orange County Superior Court.

* Aug. 23, 1991: After a four-week trial, Laura Small is awarded more than $2 million. Jurors say the county failed to move quickly enough to warn the public after park rangers had reported “unusual” mountain lion sightings. The girl’s mother is awarded $75,000.

* Sept. 17, 1991: The county decides to appeal both awards.

* February, 1992: In the wake of the Small verdict, the Board of Supervisors bans children at Caspers Park. The Smalls charge that officials closed the park to pressure an appeals court to overturn the jury award.

* Oct. 21, 1993: The county reaches a tentative, $1.5-million settlement with the Smalls.

Source: Los Angeles Times