A woman who says she nearly died twice after being overcome by field smoke is suing Idaho and Washington farmers to stop the annual fires and recover damages.
Kelly A. McAnally, her husband and children filed suit in Kootenai County District Court last week against 26 farmers and companies who were burning on September 18, 1995 - the first time McAnally collapsed with an asthma attack. The Intermountain Grass Growers Association and 10 not-yet-named growers are named in the suit.
The 38-year-old Kootenai Medical Center nurse is charging the farmers and its trade association with battery, trespass, negligence, emotional distress and health damage that has left her permanently dependent upon steroids in order to continue breathing.
Field burning by both grass growers and grain farmers puts smoke “containing dangerous and hazardous substances into the air,” the suit said. “This conduct is extreme and outrageous.”
The Intermountain Grass Growers Association said it’s difficult to tie smoke from field fires to McAnally’s problems. Last year, the association suggested that too much exercise could have induced McAnally’s asthma.
“I’m a little bit perplexed how you would go back and prove who had an impact over what went into the air,” said Linda Clovis, the group’s executive director. “There’s so many other factors you have to take into account,” such as dust and forest fires.
“I can’t imagine how a judge would ever be able to rule on this or how a jury would be able to come to any decisions.”
“We empathize with her dilemma … you always are concerned for anybody who has problems,” Clovis said.
Farmers have not yet been served with the suit.
About 2,000 acres of fields in North Idaho and Eastern Washington were being burned the day McAnally claims to have collapsed.
Until that time, McAnally had been a marathon runner, swimmer and soloist at church. She had never smoked and had no breathing problems. Since the fall of 1995, she’s had asthma and lives by the mist of inhalers, spoonfuls of cough syrup and handfuls of pills, including steroids, she said.
McAnally was hospitalized with breathing problems again in February 1996 and September 1996. Last year, her doctor identified smoke from burning fields as the culprit.
She now must carry a syringe with a dose of medicine to pull her out of antiphilactic shock, said her attorney, Corrie J. Yackulic.
Her voice has changed - it is lower - and she will suffer the long-term side effects of taking steroids, Yackulic said of her client.
McAnally is seeking money for her medical expenses, for the pain and emotional distress her health problems allegedly are causing her family, as well as an injunction against field burning. Her attorneys will have to consult with doctors and scientists before deciding how extensive an injunction to seek, Yackulic said.
Last year the Sandpoint-based Clean Air Coalition threatened to start suing individual growers who torch their fields. That created strong fears among Rathdrum Prairie farmers, half of whom agreed to a 10-year voluntary phase-out of grass burning in August.
This is the second suit to surface in the last year, although the Clean Air Coalition is not a party to McAnally’s action.
A federal judge tossed out a grass-burning suit filed by the family of a 4-year-old cystic fibrosis sufferer earlier this month. The family of Alexandria Heisel wanted the court to force Kootenai County to ban field burning under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge said he did not have the authority to force the county to pass such a law.
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