Biker hits panther, sues state

Tuesday , March 18, 2014 - 3:24 PM

Eric Staats

NAPLES, Fla. -- In the latest clash between southwest Florida’s growing panther population and encroaching urban development, a motorcyclist who hit one of the endangered animals is suing the state, alleging its new warning system isn’t stopping accidents.

On a sunny day last March, Kenneth Nolan was riding his Ducati motorcycle along a stretch of highway through the Big Cypress National Preserve when a Florida panther ran into the road in front of him. Scientists say a growing panther population, estimated at as many as 160, is running out of room in southwest Florida in the face of urban growth and an uptick in vehicle collisions.

What happened to Nolan, 57, is at the center of a negligence and product liability lawsuit filed in Broward Circuit Court last month by Nolan, of Broward County, and his wife, Debra, against the Florida Department of Transportation and traffic systems company TransCore.

The DOT had hired TransCore months earlier to install a wildlife warning system along the stretch of eastern Collier County road, infamous for being deadly for the endangered wildcats, to test whether the system would reduce the number of collisions between panthers and vehicles. It didn’t help Nolan.

Nolan’s bike hit the panther, sending Nolan skidding down the road. He broke his clavicle, his shoulder and some ribs and sustained a brain bleed. The panther got up and disappeared into the woods, its fate unknown.

"The product is intended to protect not only humans but panthers," said Lawrence Bohannon, Nolans’ attorney in Fort Lauderdale. "In this case it did neither."

Representatives of the DOT and TransCore wouldn’t comment on the lawsuit.

The so-called Roadside Animal Detection System was a first for Florida when it was unveiled in January along a 1.3-mile stretch of U.S. 41 that crosses the Turner River, which meanders through the Big Cypress National Park, adjacent to Everglades National Park.

Since 1984, eight panthers have been confirmed struck by vehicles on either side of the river; five of them have been killed. Six of the collisions, and four of the deaths have occurred since 2004.

In one case, a female panther was injured along a stretch of the road. Her kitten was killed a month later. When the mother panther was released back into the wild, she found her way back to the same spot and was killed in a vehicle collision.

The warning system uses sensors to detect movement of wildlife and triggers flashing lights to warn passing motorists. Soon after it was installed, though, weeds and grass grew over the sensors because Transcore mowers weren’t keeping up with the job, DOT spokeswoman Debbie Tower said this summer.

The lawsuit hints that blocked sensors might not be the only reason the warning system wouldn’t be triggered. It asks for TransCore’s contract with DOT to see whether the system was installed correctly in the first place.

"It’s a good system but it’s had problems from the get-go," said David Shealy, who owns Trail Lakes campground along the stretch of road equipped with the warning system and witnessed Nolan’s wipeout.

Shealy said some of the sensors aren’t set up in the places where panthers like to cross U.S. 41, and they are set too close to the road to provide ample warning.

Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission panther biologist Darrell Land said he has questioned whether the system would work along the Turner River stretch of U.S. 41 because of the road’s narrow shoulders.

"That’s what we’re trying to find out," Land said.

(Reach reporter Eric Staats at

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