The family of an 18-year-old Missoula woman who died while scuba diving in Glacier National Park reached a settlement in a wrongful death lawsuit against Gull Dive Center and others.
Let’s take a look at what happened and what it means to file a wrongful death lawsuit in Montana.
The fatal incident
The following facts were asserted in the complaint filed by the family of Linnea Mills.
On October 19, 2020, Linnea Mills enrolled in a Professional Association of Diving Instructors (PADI) Advanced Open Water scuba diving training course offered by Gull Dive Center of Missoula, Montana.
Although Linnea told a Gull Dive Center employee that she was not certified to use a dry suit, the employee failed to inform her that she was required to get her certification before taking the Advanced Open Water course.
What’s more, rather than rent a dry suit to an uncertified diver, which would violate the PADI Retailer and Resort Association Membership Standards, the employee facilitated the sale of a used dry suit to Linnea through a private seller. Gull Dive Center instructors then failed to check Linnea’s equipment in the days leading up to the dive.
As a result of the failure to check Linnea’s equipment, Gull Dive Center employees were unaware that Linnea had no means of eliminating “suit squeeze,” which occurs when the air inside a dry suit is crushed by the weight of the water surrounding a diver. Linnea also had a regulator unsuitable for cold water use.
On November 1, 2020, Linnea and several other students left for Lake McDonald, 145 miles north of Missoula in Glacier National Park. The lead diver that evening, Debbie Snow, was unqualified to teach dry-suit diving.
The scene on the beach of Lake McDonald was chaotic as divers prepared for their dives. Instead of providing Linnea with a weight belt for buoyancy control, Debbie placed lead weights in Linnea’s dry suit pockets.
The dive started just before sunset. The water in Lake McDonald was cold and dark.
At a depth of 59 feet, roughly five minutes into the dive, the water pressure on Linnea’s body reached 25.53 pounds per square inch, and she began experiencing suit squeeze. Struggling to breathe and unable to kick her legs or move her arms freely, Linnea stood on a small ledge and tried desperately to attract someone’s attention.
After several minutes, Bob Gentry, one of the other students, spotted Linnea and swam toward her.
Unfortunately, while attempting to signal Bob, Linnea fell backward and plummeted down the wall into the depths of Lake McDonald.
GoPro footage later showed that as Linnea was sinking uncontrollably, she extended one arm upward, reaching out to Bob, as she held her mouthpiece in her mouth with her other hand.
Bob continued to chase Linnea as she fell down the steeply sloping side of Lake McDonald. After swimming for approximately one minute, Bob caught up with Linnea at a depth of 85.3 feet.
At this depth, the pressure on Linnea’s body was 36.87 pounds per square inch. The walls of Linnea’s torso, chest, and neck were being crushed by the dry suit.
Bob attempted to help Linnea, but he could not locate her lead weights. He then tried to use brute force to swim upward with Linnea but was unable to do so.
Bob stayed with Linnea until she lost consciousness.
The lawsuit and settlement
On May 4, 2021, lawyers for Linnea’s family filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Missoula County District Court.
The lawsuit alleged that the defendants were negligent and failed to exercise reasonable care before the dive, during the dive, and after the dive.
The lawsuit sought compensatory damages and punitive damages.
On February 8, 2023, the parties reached a settlement agreement for an undisclosed amount.
Although none of the defendants were criminally charged after an initial investigation, the family of Linnea Mills is pushing for federal prosecutors to re-investigate the case and charge Debbie Snow with negligent homicide.
Montana wrongful death lawsuits
A wrongful death claim is a civil action brought on behalf of the family members of a decedent (the deceased person) who was killed as a result of a negligent or wrongful act. The claim is meant to compensate the surviving family members for the losses they suffered as a result of their loved one’s death.
As is the case with all states, Montana has laws that govern wrongful death claims. These laws address who can file a wrongful death claim, how a wrongful death claim must be proven, and what damages can be awarded.
It’s important to keep in mind that when a personal representative files a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of the family, they essentially step into the shoes of the deceased. As a result, the personal representative has to prove liability the same way the decedent would have had to prove liability had they survived the negligent or wrongful act.
There are 4 main types of damages available to family members in a wrongful death case:
- Loss of consortium. These damages represent the loss of care, companionship, guidance, love, and affection.
- Damages for lost support. The jury will attempt to calculate the amount of money the decedent would reasonably have contributed for the support, education, training, and care of their family members.
- Mental anguish. These damages attempt to compensate family members for the grief, sorrow and mental anguish they experienced as a result of the decedent’s death.
- Funeral and burial expenses. The family members of the decedent in a wrongful death action can be reimbursed for the money spent on their loved one’s funeral and burial.
Processing the death of a loved one and simultaneously pursuing a wrongful death claim can be extremely challenging and overwhelming. It’s important to find a Montana attorney who is not only skilled and experienced but who has the compassion and understanding to guide you through this difficult time.