A lawsuit lodged against Riverside County Sheriff's Department, Southern California, claims that delays in a search and rescue operation contributed to a mountain biker's death, the Press Enterprise
Andres Martin, 34, died while riding Santiago Peak on the evening of March 1, 2014. He phoned his wife just before sunset saying he was injured and sounding disoriented. He was found dead from hypothermia the next morning, having only worn clothing suitable for a ride in moderate temperatures. The temperature was not recorded on Santiago Peak that night but a nearby mountain that is 1,800 feet lower recorded a temperature of 39°F (about 4°C). A post-mortem revealed he suffered a blunt impact head injury that is not thought to have been the cause of death.
Martin's widow, Christyna Arista, has now filed a lawsuit claiming a "shambolic" response was a significant factor in her husband's death. She claims her family was told a search and rescue operation would be performed only for it to be cancelled two hours later. Arista and six other family members then took it upon themselves to begin a search at 3:45 am and it was a good samaritan from the Riverside volunteer Mountain Rescue Unit who eventually found Martin at the next morning. He rode up the mountain on his motorbike “before ‘search and rescue’ could even finish their briefing,” the suit says.
Arista claims that she had to endure overhearing a sheriff's lieutenant commenting that Martin was probably out cheating on her, a claim that her attorney called "pure speculation". She also asserts that when she raised her fears about hypothermia, she was told Martin was a "grown man" who would survive the night.
In the days after Martin’s death, authorities told local journalists that rain over a period of days made a helicopter rescue unsafe and made the clay ground too slick for vehicles and ground conditions too dangerous for a foot search.
An internal study conducted a month before Martin's death noted that search and rescue calls had gone up from 115 in 2011 to 237 in 2013 and advocated for a department wide search and rescue team. As it stood at the time, Riverside's search and rescue team was made up of volunteers and reserve deputies that the study noted might have lacked co-ordination and training.
The Press Enterprise (PE) reports that, "the Sheriff’s Department, in a statement, has said that while the agency 'does not have a dedicated search management and rescue team,' it does have sworn personnel who are formally trained in search-and-rescue techniques and stationed throughout the county. The department also has several internal teams and bureaus to aid in search-and-rescue operations, as well as volunteer groups, and uses mutual aid from outside counties."
The PE continues: "Riverside County has argued that its employees had no duty to rescue Marin, that it did nothing to put him in danger, nor did it prevent a qualified person from performing a rescue, adding that there is no constitutional duty to provide trained rescue employees. The county also denied creating a “special relationship” in which Arista and her family might have expected its employees to search for Marin."
This defense stood in April 2017 but has now been overturned on appeal. The Fourth District Court of Appeal Division Two said Arista could indeed seek damages for wrongful death, negligence, and negligent infliction of emotional distress, assuming her version of events is correct. The PE quotes the Appelate Court as saying: "Sheriff’s Department personnel (the deputies), through their actions, undertook the responsibility of rescuing the victim.” That included “using reasonable care not to increase the risk of harm.”
Arista and her lawyers are seeking compensation but also improvements in search and rescue efforts. She said: "My goal is that they get a search-and-rescue team that is effective and in place, so that no other family goes through what we went through, to save some other life so that my husband’s life was not lost in vain."
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