KATIE OYAN Associated Press Writer HELENA (AP)
A federal appeals court panel has upheld a lower court's decision ordering the U.S. Forest Service and a snowmobiler to pay nearly $10.2 million to a Michigan man who suffered severe brain injuries when he was struck by a s n ow m o b i l e n e a r We s t Yellowstone in 1996. The panel's 20-page opinion, issued Wednesday, stems from a February 2004 decision by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy of Missoula. Molloy ruled that the Forest Service must pay 40 percent of the award for the crash, which left Brian Musselman of Hope, Mich., with permanent disabilities. Court records showed that 16 days before Musselman was injured, two snowmobiles and a snow grooming machine were involved in a crash at the same location. Molloy determined the Forest Service failed to fix dangerous conditions along the groomed trail, or to warn snowmobilers of the hazard. He assigned 50 percent of the liability in the crash to Jamie Leinberger of Bay City, Mich., one of two snowmobi lers Musselman's family originally sued. According to court records, Musselman met a group of friends including Leinberger, Patrick Kalahar and Tim Johnson at a restaurant north of West Yellowstone on Feb. 25, 1996. Musselman and Kalahar each drank at least three beers, Johnson consumed three to four beers, and Leinberger had four to eight beers, court documents said. Kalahar and Johnson's hometowns were not available. The four left the restaurant on their snowmobiles at about 10 p.m. and drove down a stretch of Big Sky Trail that none of them had been on before. C o u r t r e c o r d s s a y Musselman, an "expert snowmobiler," and Johnson were in the lead and went over an unexpected and unmarked drop-off, causing Johnson to crash. Musselman then got off his snowmobile and entered the trail, either to help Johnson or to warn the other two riders of the steep drop, court documents said.