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JUDGE ABSOLVES PARK IN SUIT OVER FATAL LIGHTNING STRIKE

A judge Wednesday dismissed $1 million in claims against Darien Lake Theme Park for the deaths of two of three campers fatally struck by lightning in a storm there three years ago.

Acting State Supreme Court Justice Glenn R. Morton of Batavia agreed with the park's Buffalo attorney, James J. Duane, that the Genesee County amusement facility had "no legal duty to protect against an event as unlikely as a lightning strike."

Morton dismissed lawsuits filed by the families of Kelly Hilts and Andrew J. Lather, both of Vernon, a community of 1,400 just east of Syracuse.

"One who engages in outdoor recreation must assume the reasonably foreseeable risks inherent in the activity," Morton said.

Although Jeffrey Smith of Vernon also died in the July 26, 1987, lightning strike, his family didn't sue the park, operated by Funtime Inc.

The lawsuit marked the first time the state courts have been asked to consider corporate or individual responsibility for the deaths of individuals struck by lightning, Duane said.

Hilts, 20; Lather, 18, and Smith, 17, were electrocuted when lightning flowed through their tents during an early morning storm that struck the park's "Overflow Campground" on an open grassy area along Route 77, 100 yards from the park's main campground.

Their bodies were not discovered for two days. Their deaths were ruled by the Erie County medical examiner's office to have been caused by electrocution due to lightning.

Police reports indicated lightning appeared to have first struck an aluminum pole used on a tent where two of the men were sleeping and arced to the men's other tent about 6 feet away.

Duane said he argued before Morton on Sept. 4 in Batavia that the park cannot be held accountable for a "freakish and unforeseeable" storm.

James J. Devine Jr., the Oneida attorney who represents the Hilts and Lather families, was unavailable to comment on a possible appeal.

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