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Justin Mellon's Family Says County Did Not Take Precautions : $21 Million Asked for Latest Lion Attack

November 08, 1986|NANCY WRIDE | Times Staff Writer

The family of a 6-year-old boy mauled by a mountain lion three weeks ago at Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park filed a $21-million claim with the county Friday, seeking damages for what his father called "the trauma we will have to live with for the rest of our lives."

The claim names Justin Mellon, his parents and six other relatives as plaintiffs and alleges all of them suffered "severe personal injuries" as a result of the Oct. 19 mountain lion attack at the county park east of San Juan Capistrano.

It alleges that the county knew of the "foreseeable risk" of a mountain lion attack in the area where the park is located but put it there anyway and did not take adequate steps to warn or protect park visitors.

As they did after the attack on a 5-year-old El Toro girl at the park last March 23, officials shut down Caspers after Justin was mauled. Park rangers and wildlife biologists say they have continued to search for the animal that mauled the boy but have not located it.

Signs Posted

The March attack left Laura Michele Small's right arm and leg paralyzed, damaged her right eye and resulted in 50 severe cuts on her head and face. The cat crushed the left side of her skull, sending shards of bone into her brain.

When the park reopened April 14, signs were posted alerting visitors to the presence of mountain lions.

The Mellon family said Friday that the signs were not so much warnings as descriptions of mountain lions and that, after they paid a park ranger $1.25 admission and asked him about any special precautions, he told them to "stay on the trails, and you'll be fine."

Justin Mellon was mauled on a nature trail "about a quarter of a mile" from the site of the attack on Laura Small, Timothy Mellon said.

"With regard to Justin, I don't know what the ultimate effect is going to be, nor to the others who witnessed the attack," said Richard J. Staskus, a San Jose attorney representing the family. "Emotional trauma can manifest itself physically at a later date."

Will Review Claim

John Oskin, county claims manager, said Friday that he could not discuss the claim because of a pending lawsuit filed against the county by Staskus on behalf of the Small family.

Oskin said he will review the Mellons' claim in the next three or four days. A similar claim, which by law must be filed against the county before a lawsuit can be brought, was rejected in the Small case.

Officials with county agencies named in the claim and individuals who were named declined to comment Friday.

Timothy Mellon, who used a hunting knife to drive off the mountain lion that attacked his son as family members looked on, said Justin returned to kindergarten Monday but remains both physically and emotionally scarred by the attack.

The youngster, who suffered a "bite out of his leg, fang marks in the stomach, claw marks behind his ear and on his arms and three massive bite wounds in his head," is undergoing weekly counseling with a psychiatrist, his father said.

He remains afraid of the family's pet springer spaniel, stays mostly indoors and has been uncharacteristically quiet until this week, when he began talking a bit about the attack--right before bedtime, said Mellon, 28.

Fear of Forest Cited

"He hasn't cried once since the attack, and that worries us," Mellon said Friday. "He wonders if the mountain lion is going to get him again someday. He says he doesn't ever want to go to the forest again.

"He bumped his forehead on the car door a couple of days ago--we were in the emergency room again, but they just put surgical tape on his head--and he cried like crazy for that. He thought he was going to die. Because I rescued him from the lion, I was the only one who could fix it and make it better. He thinks I'm the only one who can help him now. That's not right. His mom and grandma can help him, too."

Mellon said the relatives who were on the trail when the lion attacked Justin "feel responsible for Justin's attack because they couldn't do anything for him. They felt guilty and helpless. That's probably the worst thing. . . All the family was traumatized, and we shouldn't have been in that situation. And now we have to live with this for the rest of our lives, especially Justin."

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