The Tragic Death of Sonya Ross, 20, Sparks a $2.5 Million Lawsuit—and New, Hard Questions for Outward Bound
Sonya's death in 1977 was one of 15 to occur on the rigorous Outward Bound wilderness courses in the U.S. and has led some to rethink the program. Conceived during World War II as a survival regime for British sailors, Outward Bound has launched seven schools in the States since 1962. The idea is to teach city dwellers self-reliance, and, boosted by the fitness explosion, the nonprofit courses have attracted more than 68,000 Americans at an average cost of $750. Risk is endemic; the training may culminate in anything from being left alone in the wilderness with a gallon of water and a box of matches (as was John F. Kennedy Jr. two years ago) to sailing the open Atlantic for 72 hours with only two hours' sleep a night. The injury rate, notes Outward Bound president Henry W. Taft, is less than in playing college football or driving a car. "I take some comfort in the comparison," he says, "but no death or serious injury is acceptable."
Increasingly, Outward Bound families are agreeing with him—and taking their grievances to court. So far four cases brought by next of kin of participants killed in training have been settled out of court—one after the Oregon Supreme Court overturned a jury decision in OB's favor. The largest pending suit—for $2.5 million in real and punitive damages—comes from the parents of Sonya Ross. Her father, Christopher T.W. Ross, a Buffalo lawyer, alleges that the instructor, a college freshman, was unqualified and that he pushed Sonya beyond her breaking point. "Many states license fishing and big-game guides," argues Ross, "but, incredibly, there is no requirement to be licensed to take human beings into the wilderness. We want to call attention to the need to regulate these schools."
Sonya, an honors student in psychology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, was a dancer with the Empire State Ballet Theatre and an avid horseback rider, but her parents insist she was unfit for the rugged march her group was taken on. The Rosses contend that she had only half a day's instruction in climbing and knot tying—and that a letter from Sonya they found in their mailbox when they brought her body home suggests she was suffering from altitude sickness. "I am the weakest in the patrol," wrote the 115-pound ballerina. "The pack weighs 50 pounds, and we walk from the break of dawn to sundown. The first week, we've eaten mostly crackers and peanut butter. I kept hyperventilating bad and I got pretty scared. I start to shake and that's real dangerous when your grip is real shallow."
Her parents claim she asked several times to leave the group to rest at a lower altitude but was refused. "They told her she couldn't find her way back without a guide," her father says, "and they couldn't disrupt the patrol to provide one." Perhaps most poignant of all, the Rosses insist that Sonya did not, as they were told, die instantly and that she should have received immediate medical attention; the sheriff was not notified until eight hours after the accident, and her body remained in the gully overnight, covered by a tarpaulin.
Among her effects, Sonya's parents found a will she had scrawled out three days before she died. Sonya's mother consoles herself by following her last request (tending to her horse)—and by painstakingly amassing evidence on Outward Bound deaths in the hope that Sonya's will not be entirely in vain. "This organization dares to purposely endanger the lives of our children," she declares, "for the sake of a learning experience the value of which is nonexistent for the dead—and forever haunting to the living."