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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Woman paralyzed in 2017 skydiving accident settles with Skydive Toledo and affiliate for ‘confidential amount’

By Emily Fitzgerald The Chronicle (Centralia, Wash.)

A woman who was paralyzed in a skydiving accident in Toledo in 2017 has reached a settlement with Skydive Toledo, the plaintiff’s attorney announced Tuesday.

The agreement also outlines safety measures that Skydive Toledo must follow to prevent similar accidents in the future.

“We are pleased Skydive Toledo has agreed to address these deficiencies. Frankly, for too long, the skydive industry has gotten away with troublesome conduct by blaming the sometimes first-time jumper and taking no responsibility for its actions. Skydive Toledo has stepped up big-time here, recognizing these changes can make a difference,” said Thomas Breen, an attorney at Schroeter Goldmark & Bender who represented the injured skydiver, Jaime Beenen.

Beenen filed a personal injury lawsuit against Skydive Toledo and manager Heather Whittaker, along with Lewis County as the owner of the airport property and Josephine Air, a company that subleases the South Lewis County Airport property to Skydive Toledo, in 2020, accusing the parties of negligence for their alleged roles in her July 2, 2017, accident.

Breenen and her fiancé had booked beginner skydiving solo experiences through Skydive Toledo as a “bucket list” item before the couple’s wedding that August, according to previous Chronicle reporting.

She was concerned about the safety of static line jumping, a kind of skydiving where the skydiver jumps alone and the main parachute is deployed via a “static line” attached to the plane.

But after hearing reassurances from Skydive Toledo staff, and understanding her Groupon voucher for the skydive was non-refundable, she signed the company’s nine-page waiver and attended the four-hour pre-jump class on July 2, 2017.

That same day, the couple ascended from the South Lewis County Airport and jumped.

Beenen let herself fall until she reached the point she’d been instructed, before flaring her parachute — a procedure to slow a skydiver’s descent — to prepare for landing.

Then, she heard her Skydive Toledo instructor-in-training yell “No!” through the one-way radio.

She unflared her parachute.

The ground was rapidly approaching and so she flared her parachute again, but by then it was too late. She hit the ground at a high enough rate of speed to crush her spinal cord, rendering her paralyzed from the chest down.

“While neither party admitted fault, Skydive Toledo ultimately agreed to pay Beenen an amount that is strictly confidential,” Schroeter Goldmark & Bender said in a news release.

Skydive Toledo also agreed to only permit rated instructors or coaches who have been rated by the United States Parachute Association (USPA), a private governing body for parachuters in the United States, to guide student jumpers midair over the radio; and to conduct an investigation, document the investigation, submit the investigation to the USPA and preserve the incident report when when a jumper at Skydive Toledo is injured and needs to be transported to a hospital or if their jump results in death.

“We feel like we accomplished something here for the benefit of future student skydivers. We think this case should be presented at national skydiving conferences; other skydive facilities could stand to learn the lessons Skydive Toledo learned,” said Breen.

The settlement comes after Skydive Toledo attempted to countersue Beenen in July 2020 for filing her personal injury lawsuit earlier that year.

Beenen’s suit was initially filed in Lewis County Superior Court in May 2020 and was moved to Thurston County Superior Court in June 2020, according to court documents.

Thurston County Superior Court dismissed Skydive Toledo’s lawsuit against Beenen in October 2023, according to court documents and the news release from Beenen’s attorney.

“It’s not exactly commonplace to sue a student jumper who was rendered quadriplegic at a business. But this lawsuit against Ms. Beenen was particularly egregious because it was based on illegal provisions in a contract, provisions that are flatly contrary to Washington law,” Breen said. “The contract was taken out of a playbook from the skydive industry. Some out-of-state ‘skydive lawyer’ drafts a contract knowing nothing about Washington law, then files claims under the contract, and threatens the injured jumper with substantial attorney fees if she exercises her right to seek accountability. It’s done to intimidate and dissuade jumpers from bringing legitimate claims.”

After the lawsuit was thrown out and the contract terms deemed illegal, “Skydive Toledo was surprised to learn that, under Washington law, it must pay attorney fees for having sued an injured patron under the illegal contract,” Schroeter Goldmark & Bender said in a news release.

As a result of that ruling, Skydive Toledo, Josephine Air and Heather Whittaker were ordered to pay Beenen $95,552.50, according to court documents, which indicate that payment was fully satisfied as of Nov. 22, 2023.

“This is the first of many lessons for skydive businesses,” Breen said. “Make sure your lawyer is licensed in your state and familiar with your state’s contract laws before you use a liability waiver or follow any recommendation to sue injured jumpers.”

After Skydive Toledo’s lawsuit was dismissed, “Beenen continued with the prosecution of her claims against Skydive Toledo up until the eve of trial, when the parties reached a settlement,” Schroeter Goldmark & Bender said in a news release.

Beenen’s case against Lewis County, the airport owner, was dismissed by the court and is now headed for appeal.

“We look forward to the appeal covering issues such as Lewis County giving Skydive Toledo not only the space on its property to run skydive training classes, but also the apparent backing of a governmental institution, thereby covering the public’s view of the serious deficiencies happening at Skydive Toledo,” Breen said. “That case presents some fascinating legal issues. Onward we go.”