Court says state not liable in family's freezing death

Posted: Sunday, July 27, 2003

ANCHORAGE (AP) The state Supreme Court has reversed a judgment against the state involving the freezing death of a family on the Denali Highway seven years ago.

In a decision rendered Friday the high court said Alaska State Troopers exercised an allowable amount of discretion concerning how and when to begin searching for Anchorage residents Palmer Olrun, his wife, Leah, and their 2-year-old grandson Ethan. And discretion in the ways of handling a search are immune from liability, the court ruled.

The Olruns died after becoming stranded while driving the Interior highway in January 1996.

Their daughter reported them missing four days after they left Anchorage Jan. 11. She had told Anchorage police that their destination may have been south, toward Seward or Homer.

In fact, by the time they were reported missing the Olruns and their grandson were in the Interior in their four-wheel-drive Subaru. They turned onto the Denali Highway and eventually became stuck in soft snow.

When the vehicle ran out of gasoline, they stamped the word ''Help'' in the snow. Then they started walking. Temperatures were estimated at about 40 below zero.

Hunters found the abandoned car and reported it to troopers on Jan. 15, but a search wasn't launched until Jan. 17, mainly because of weather conditions.

The Olruns were found dead early the following day. They were about eight miles from the car, and only a quarter-mile from a lodge on the highway.

Troopers involved in the search were later disciplined by former Col. Glenn Godfrey for mishandling the search.

Survivors of the victims sued, claiming troopers took too long to mount a rescue operation. In 1999 a jury agreed and decided the state was 51-percent at fault in the deaths. They awarded family members $2.7 million, although that amount was later reduced by more than half by another court.

In Friday's decision, the Supreme Court said bad weather and the lack of firm information on the family's whereabouts complicated any decision about where and when to conduct a search.

''The issue of weather, resource allocation, they're all complex factors,'' said Gail Voigtlander, supervising attorney for torts and workers compensation in the state attorney general's office. ''The court is basically saying those are discretionary issues and are immune from liability.''

The Alaska Legislature also passed legislation last session that broadened that immunity in search and rescue operations.

A representative of the survivors could not be reached for comment Friday.

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