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Incident of Boy Mauled by Polar Bear Highlights Liability Risks

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

In the early morning of 5 August 2011, 17-year-old schoolboy Horatio Chapple was mauled to death by a polar bear and four others were injured. Chapple was on an adventure holiday to arctic Svalbard, Norway, organised by the British Schools Exploring Society (BSES).

Following the tragic incident, an inquest was commenced to determine whether the expedition leaders or sponsor held any liability for the boy’s death.

What Precautions Did the Organisers Take?

The BSES provided a written risk assessment to the parents of the young members who were to go on their led expedition.

Horatio Chapple’s parents were worried about bear attacks and so had reviewed the terms for safety and protection whilst on the holiday. They allowed him to attend based on the stated protections.

The BSES protections included armed leaders, a four-mine tripwire alert system for night camps, and ‘pen flares’ for each camper, which shoot up to 50 metres, for scaring away bears.

How Did the Incident Unfold?

Expedition leader Michael Reid recounted that he was alerted to the presence of the bear by screams of the campers after the tripwire alert system failed to detonate. He attempted to shoot the bear whilst also avoiding further injury to campers, but his rifle failed multiple times.

Reid was then bitten in the head by the bear, at which point he tried to exploit an area of weakness and ‘take out’ the bear’s eyes. Despite his injuries, he managed to reload the gun and finally successfully kill the bear.

What Did the Coroner’s Inquest Find?

The coroner reported the bear was old, starving, and in pain, which likely made it aggressive and erratic. Richard Payne, the chief expedition leader, stated, "I have never seen [a polar bear] and to have one in that area at that time of year and for it to behave as it did was totally out of character."

During the inquest, Payne reported there were ‘deficiencies and failures’ with the equipment and that, after arriving at the base camp, there were only enough pen flares for the leaders, not the campers.He confirmed it was their intention for each camper to have a pen flare.

Additionally, part of the tripwire alert system surrounding Chapple’s camp was incomplete, with only three mines instead of the required four. During the inquest, BSES explained that the tripwire alert system sometimes fails, something that Chapple’s father stated they were never told.

Despite these shortcomings, the coroner told the inquest that holding finding neglect was not “appropriate to be considered as (BSES) failure was not total or complete”. Thus he found that BSES was not responsible for Chapple’s death.

Chapple’s parents urged others who might consider sending their children on similar holidays to thoroughly review the safety information and “to question the organisations who may be taking responsibility for the lives of their children”.

For specialist advice regarding liability for health and safety, corporate manslaughter or negligence, contact Peter Gourri today by email or telephone 0207 611 4848.

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