In Grizzly Mauling, Judge Rules Pot Not the Cause

By Beacon Staff

Smoking marijuana and getting up close and personal with grizzly bears doesn’t mix. That advice was part of a May 4 ruling issued by a judge in a workers’ compensation court deciding the bizarre case of a Flathead man mauled by a grizzly he was attempting to feed at the Great Bear Adventures park in West Glacier in 2007.

At issue was whether the victim, Brock Hopkins, was an employee of Great Bear Adventures at the time of the attack and thus eligible for workers’ compensation for the severe injuries he sustained. On the other side was Russell Kilpatrick, who owns the property upon which Great Bear Adventures is located, and the Montana Uninsured Employers’ Fund.

Kilpatrick argued that Hopkins was a volunteer, and that nonprescription marijuana, which Hopkins admitted smoking on the morning of the incident, was a major cause of the bear attack.

Judge James Jeremiah Shea, of the Montana Workers’ Compensation Court, disagreed with Kilpatrick in a written decision that managed to shoehorn in a footnote to the stoner comedy, “Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle.”

“It is not as if this attack occurred when Hopkins inexplicably wandered into the grizzly pen while searching for the nearest White Castle,” Shea wrote. “Hopkins was attacked while performing a job Kilpatrick had paid him to do – feeding grizzly bears.”

“When it comes to attacking humans, grizzlies are equal opportunity maulers; attacking without regard to race, creed, ethnicity or marijuana usage. Hopkins’ use of marijuana to kick off a day of working around grizzly bears was ill-advised to say the least and mind-bogglingly stupid to say the most,” Shea added. “However, I have been presented with no evidence by which I can conclude that Hopkins’ marijuana use was the major contributing cause of the grizzly attack.”

The incident occurred on the morning of Nov. 2, 2007 when Hopkins, then 23, arrived at the bear park to begin work and, according to court documents, placed his marijuana pipe in his pocket after smoking it. The bear park, which operates from Memorial Day to Labor Day, was preparing for winter and the bears were going into hibernation.

Whether Kilpatrick and Hopkins had a specific conversation about feeding the bears is unclear; Hopkins couldn’t remember and a witness, on the phone with Kilpatrick at the time, said she remembers Kilpatrick telling Hopkins that he did not plan to feed the bears. Hopkins worked two hours on a gate, then found Kilpatrick asleep, and began mixing the bear food.

Hopkins placed his marijuana pipe on a storage shed outside the bear pen, then entered with the food, where he was attacked. Hopkins managed to crawl under the electric fence, but sustained severe injuries. Kilpatrick found Hopkins and loaded him into a truck to seek medical attention. He was flown to Kalispell Regional Medical Center via the ALERT helicopter, and underwent two surgeries for leg wounds that included a detached kneecap.

Kilpatrick argued that he did not ask Hopkins to work at the bear park that day, but conceded he instructed Hopkins to adjust the gates and, according to court documents, gave Hopkins $300 shortly after he was released from the hospital.

Shea disagreed with Kilpatrick on this point as well.

“Kilpatrick’s testimony that he gave Hopkins money on multiple occasions, ‘out of my heart’ coincidentally while Hopkins was performing ‘favors’ for Kilpatrick at the bear park is not credible,” Shea wrote. “There is a term of art used to describe the regular exchange of money for favors – it is called ‘employment.’”

According to Hopkins’ attorney, Jeffrey Ellingson, he has mostly recovered.

“He has problems, particularly with his knee and he’s got healthy scars and muscle damage,” Ellingson said. “He’s going to hurt when he’s older.”

Hopkins is now eligible for compensation from the Uninsured Employers’ Fund for the roughly $70,000 in medical expenses he incurred, Ellingson added, and has not decided whether to pursue other charges.

As for Kilpatrick, on May 24 he filed a motion for reconsideration saying, based on the original testimony in the proceedings, that, “it is a stretch to say the least for this Court to conclude that this Respondent requested Hopkins to feed the grizzlies or any other bear on the property on Nov. 2, 2007.”

In a Jan. 10, 2008 statement to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry attached to the motion to reconsider, Kilpatrick described his reaction to finding the marijuana pipe outside the bear den the morning after the attack: “I became very very angry because I then knew what had happened. In my opinion Brock could not resist one last time of harassing the bear with his habit of blowing smoke in their faces for God only knows what reason and in direct defiance of my telling him NOT to disturb them!!!”

As of press time, Kilpatrick did not return a call for comment.