Fatal kayak trip touted as ‘calm,’ suit claims
A Gonzaga student who died after his kayak tipped in treacherous conditions on Rock Lake last year had signed up for a trip advertised as “a calm kayak” on “flatwater,” according to a lawsuit filed by the man’s mother.
Christopher Gormley, 18, died from hypothermia after his kayak capsized in the frigid waters of Rock Lake in northern Whitman County on April 1, 2012. He was one of seven people on the trip organized by Gonzaga Outdoors, which contracted with the city of Spokane parks department to provide the equipment and guide for the trip.
About 30 minutes after launch, three men, including Gormley, capsized in single-seat kayaks in rough water. The two other kayakers who tipped, including the city guide, Brandon LeBaron, eventually made it to shore.
Susan Gormley, Christopher’s mother, filed the lawsuit in February against the city of Spokane, Gonzaga University and LeBaron. Last month, her suit was amended with new details. She alleges that Gonzaga, not the city of Spokane, instructed participants how to dress for the trip and did not recommend wetsuits. She also alleges that the university tried to cover up its role in the trip after promising to work with the family to answer how her son died.
“The Gormleys hoped they could trust Gonzaga, that Gonzaga would not betray them, but were shocked, saddened and outraged as Gonzaga deliberately frustrated their rights as parents and tried to cover up by neglecting to tell the Gormleys the extents of its culpability,” the suit says.
The university denies the new allegations in a court filing. It also continues to allege that Gormley was or may have been responsible for his own death based on his own “culpable conduct,” court records say.
Gonzaga spokeswoman Mary Joan Hahn declined to comment, saying the university doesn’t discuss ongoing litigation.
Susan Gormley’s attorney, Lee Corkrum, also declined to comment on the case.
The amended lawsuit says that Gormley, a freshman honors student, signed up and paid for a trip on the Little Spokane River but that two days before the outing Gonzaga changed the destination to Rock Lake.
The National Weather Service issued a wind advisory early the morning of the trip for the Palouse, warning of sustained southwest winds of 25 to 30 mph with gusts up to 50 mph. Although all the participants were wearing life jackets, only LeBaron was wearing a wetsuit even though the water temperature was about 40 degrees and the air was about 35 degrees, according to the Whitman County Sheriff’s Office incident report. The lawsuit points to recommendations from the American Canoe Association that say 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.
The city argued that Gormley assumed the risk of kayaking and “was in exclusive control of the operation of the kayak,” according to the city’s response to the lawsuit. But it also said that Gormley’s death was caused by other parties the city doesn’t control, without specifying those parties.
Gormley signed a liability release while the participants were driving to Rock Lake, documents say. The lawsuit alleges that it “contained misrepresentations” and referenced an attachment that was missing when he signed it.
The case is scheduled for trial next year.