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Lawsuit Filed Against Anza-Borrego State Park


Last updated 11/4/2022 at 10:31am

The widow of a man who died while hiking in triple-digit summer heat last year has filed a wrongful death suit against Anza-Borrego Desert State Park for negligence and reckless conduct.

On June 19, 2021, Donald White, Jr., 68, from Culver City was hiking with a companion into Palm Canyon to cache water prior to an upcoming annual bighorn sheep count. White was a volunteer planning to participate in the annual count.

Temperatures that day reached 116 degrees and while hiking out, both hikers experienced heat distress.

White succumbed from what the San Diego County Medical Examiner called environmental hypothermia. His companion and a firefighter were airlifted to a hospital but recovered.

The suit alleges that state park employees should have been aware of the dangers of the extreme heat and failed to establish safety procedures to protect sheep count volunteers.

As a result of the death, the 50th annual bighorn sheep count was canceled that year. The count is typically conducted over the 4th of July weekend during peak summer heat, when it is more likely sheep will visit available waterholes.

Retired Anza-Borrego Park Superintendent Mark Jorgensen, who has been involved with sheep counts for 55 years, called the lawsuit unfortunate.

“Don White was a veteran of several sheep counts and had been to safety orientations where heat dangers are the primary focus,” Jorgensen said. “In my opinion, the tragedy is that he made a series of errors which led to his own demise.”

That included caching water at a remote location, but not taking enough with him for the return hike in triple-digit temperatures.

Jorgensen called the lawsuit “a sad result of a very sad event.”

Volunteers who have participated in previous counts were contacted, but none wanted to speak on the record.

One sheep counter, who asked not to be identified, said the park has always provided safety training prior to the sheep count, and safety of participants has always been a priority.

It was also pointed out that over the 50 years of the volunteer sheep census, there has never been a heat-related emergency.

The annual bighorn sheep count was conducted safely this year, marking the official 50 year anniversary of the event.

About 30 volunteers spent three days monitoring bighorn sheep at 10 locations within Anza-Borrego Desert State Park.

COVID restrictions and new certification requirements reduced the number of participants this year. Historically, as many as 90 volunteers have been part of the annual wildlife census, scattering into the desert at more than 20 locations.

Some of those sites are very remote, requiring a lengthy hike and time in the field during peak summer temperatures.

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