A judge has ordered the federal government to pay $700,000 to the family of a Huntington Beach hiker who died during a lightning storm at the summit of Mt. Whitney in 1990.
Matthew E. Nordbrock, who was 26, was one of 13 hikers who had sought shelter from the downpour by ducking inside of an old stone hut at the summit of the mountain. The hut's corrugated-metal roof acted as a lightning rod and Nordbrock was electrocuted.
U.S. District Judge William J. Rea also awarded a total of $1 million in damages to three surviving hikers who suffered injuries from the lightning bolt, which left everyone in the hut with first- and second-degree burns.
"We have fought for several years to prove that the government was guilty of willful misconduct," attorney Larry R. Feldman said Wednesday. "It is almost impossible to believe that the government could have a hut with a metal tin roof and a metal stovepipe on the highest mountain in the continental United States.
"It was a trap to these hikers who were all very reasonable and intelligent people and thought they would be safe inside," added Feldman, who represented Nordbrock's family and the three others.
In a scathing opinion handed down on July 7, Rea wrote that the government had displayed "wanton and reckless disregard" for hikers, some of whom had been injured in the hut during storms in 1985, 1987, 1988 and 1989.
"Despite repeated incidents and despite the knowledge that a dangerous and potentially life-threatening condition existed, (the government) failed to erect any signs or other warnings concerning the hut and its dangers during the five years preceding this accident," the judge wrote.
The hut, known as the Smithsonian Hut, was built in 1909 by the Smithsonian Institution to shelter scientists conducting astronomical research at the summit. Hikers have used the hut since the completion of modern trails to the top of Mt. Whitney in 1930.
The hut, constructed of granite blocks, has a metal stovepipe that attaches to the side of the building and leads into the interior. The stovepipe extends about five feet above the roof. There was no lightning protection system in place, court records state.
By late afternoon on July 14, 1990, Nordbrock and three friends had reached the top of the mountain when an electrically charged storm suddenly rolled in. The group made a run for the hut, where nine other hikers already had sought refuge.
Less than a minute later, lightning struck the hut, and a surging electrical charge threw Nordbrock several feet. He was removed from the mountain by helicopter and died a short time later.
"All they needed to do was spend $50 and put a sign out there which warns hikers to avoid the hut in the event of rain," Feldman said.
A warning sign was erected on July 15, 1990, the day after the accident.
The judge also awarded $400,000 to James MacLeod; $300,000 to Glen MacLeod, and $300,000 to Calif Tervo. All three suffered serious injuries in the hut.
"I think all of my clients were very traumatically and emotionally injured as a result of this event," Feldman said. "They will be very happy if the government does not let this happen to anyone else under similar circumstances."