By Doyice Cotten
Occasionally an injury or death occurs in a recreation or sport setting that really emphasizes the need of ongoing risk management. A recent lawsuit resulting from a kayaking death reported on AthleticBusiness.com presents a situation from which risk managers and sport managers can learn.
Christopher Gormley, an 18 year-old college student, died from hypothermia after his kayak tipped over in frigid waters while on a group trip. According to the lawsuit, the excursion was organized by Gonzaga University and sponsored by the Spokane parks department. Gonzaga Outdoors contracted with the city parks department to provide the equipment and guide for the trip. The guide assigned to the trip was 23 year-old Brandon LeBaron, a temporary seasonal employee for the parks department. The City of Spokane, Gonzaga University, Gonzaga Student Body Association, and Brandon LeBaron were all named as defendants in the suit.
All three single person kayaks tipped over after about 30 minutes. While LeBaron was trying to help the first overturned student, Gormley’s kayak also tipped. After failing to get the kayakers back into the kayaks for about 20 minutes, they decided to swim to shore. The girls in two-person kayaks paddled to shore safely.
What went wrong?
First, the kayak tipped over. A question arises whether the group should have been on the water that day. The manual for Spokane Parks and Recreation Department instructors directs instructors that trips are not allowed “where the wind exceeds 13-18 mph.” A weather advisory for the day warned of sustained winds of 25 to 30 mph with gusts as high as 50 mph.
Second, only LeBaron was wearing a wetsuit even though the water temperature was 40 degrees and the air temperature was 35 degrees. The lawsuit alleges that the defendants failed to meet activity standards of practice. They point out that the American Canoe Association says that a “wetsuit is a must” when paddling in water less than 60 degrees or when the air and water temperatures add up to less than 120 degrees. Fortunately, the recreation department did provide life jackets for all participants.
Third, emergency communication failed. The lawsuit states that Gonzaga student guides had cell phones and a Satellite Personal Tracker, a device that allows people to communicate with emergency services even when out of cell phone reach, in their possession. The plaintiff claims they were “inoperable or could not be used.” Students had to paddle to shore and run up the beach to locate a landline. The lawsuit states that Gonzaga officials have not explained why the phones failed to operate.
What we have here are 1) a group leader with questionable experience and training, 2) failure to follow organization safety policy; 3) failure to adhere to commonly accepted standards of practice; 4) failure to be certain all participants had appropriate safety gear (wetsuits); and 5) failure to have working emergency communication devices. Young people often lack the knowledge, experience, and maturity to recognize and avoid a potentially dangerous situation. While the students involved might be prone to proceed with a trip or activity in spite of obvious danger, at some point a mature professional must step in and take charge of the situation. If reports and claims are accurate, the professionals failed to do so.
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