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Widow of man who died prior to 2021 Bighorn Sheep Count files lawsuit

A Peninsular bighorn sheep photographed April 26, 2008.
Jessica Plautz
A Peninsular bighorn sheep photographed April 26, 2008.

The widow of a man who died leading up to to the summer 2021 scheduled bighorn sheep count in Anza-Borrego Desert State Park filed a wrongful death lawsuit this week against state parks officials, saying the event was unsafe because of triple-digit temperatures in the region.

According to the suit, filed Tuesday in San Diego Superior Court, State Parks employees should have known that high heat would endanger volunteers for the 2021 Bighorn Sheep Count, including 68-year-old Culver City resident Donald White Jr., who died on June 19, 2021, of environmental hypothermia.

The San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office said White was found unconscious near Borrego Palm Canyon Trail shortly after noon and was pronounced dead at the scene.

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Temperatures reached 116 degrees in the park that day. According to the lawsuit, temperatures over the previous two days reached 118 and 119 degrees, respectively, and an excessive heat warning was in effect for the area.

White was working as a volunteer for the sheep count and his tasks included "carrying water into exposed areas of the desert (including excessive heat areas known as `white spots') to cache and be used later by participants in the 2021 Bighorn Sheep Count," according to the lawsuit filed against the California Department of Parks and Recreation, which did not immediately respond for comment on the litigation.

The suit alleges parks employees failed to establish appropriate safety procedures to protect volunteers and should not have allowed White to take part in activities associated with the count due to the heat.

White's death led parks officials to cancel what would have been the 50th annual bighorn count, which was slated for the Fourth of July weekend.

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The department said in a statement at the time that the count would be canceled to review its safety protocols and provide "additional tools to maintain a safe environment for all."

The lawsuit states, "Recognizing their negligent and reckless conduct, State Parks' employees, agents, and representatives canceled the 2021 Bighorn Sheep Count, even though the temperatures on the planned dates of the event were less extreme than those on June 19, 2021."

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