A lawsuit against the City of Traverse City for the electrocution-drowning death of an 18 year-old at Clinch Marina in 2011 is set for a six-day trial in April. But with several associated suits complicating matters, it’s not known if the suit will be ready to be heard by then.
The families of Michael Knudsen – who died on Aug. 15, 2011 after jumping into the water for a swim – and his friend Zachary Kott-Millard who was with him, are suing the city and several private contractors for negligence due to an electrical short circuit said to have caused his death.
A city investigation determined a broken electrical cable -- combined with the failure of the marina's electrical grounding system -- resulted in electricity in the water.
The cases have become thick files that have branched out into related suits between the city and some of its contractors. The victims’ families are represented by high-profile metro Detroit attorney Geoffrey Feiger and his firm, along with longtime Traverse City attorney Dean Robb.
“There are various issues that will likely prevent it from going to trial in April,” says Gretchen Olsen, lawyer for the city, adding that the court must have hearings on several motions before a trial could begin.
Jeffrey Danzig, Feiger’s law partner, blames the prospect of delays on the city.
“The city has refused to offer a dime (in settlement),” Danzig says.
Without the city’s involvement, negotiations have “broken down,” because the private companies being sued won’t deal until they see what the city’s going to do, he adds.
The plaintiffs allege the city, marina management and contractors knew about the short and did not post warning signs. In fact, it states the city featured scenes of people swimming in the marina in promotional videos.
Olsen denies that the city made such a video.
Initial filings also include chilling narratives of Knudsen’s death and Kott-Millard’s ill-fated attempt to save him. The records speak of an agonizing death for Knudsen in which he bled from his eyes, ears and nose. Plaintiffs also claim Kott-Millard has suffered mentally and physically, and has not been able to work.
Some of the arguments come down to more technical matters. The city, for instance, has filed a motion to have the case dismissed, disputing the plaintiffs’ claim that the marina is a for-profit venture by the city (municipalities generally receive greater protection from negligence claims than private companies).
“It [the city] does not operate for profit and it doesn’t make a profit,” Olsen says. She adds that the purpose of the marina is to provide a service to the city and to help encourage tourism.
The next step toward trial will take place on February 4, when the 13th Circuit Court is set to hear some motions in the case.
The exact amount of money sought by the plaintiffs is unclear; court records indicate the initial suit asked for $50 million on behalf of Knudsen’s estate.
The final figure is up to the jury, should the case goes to trial, Danzig says.
“There is substantial evidence that Michael (Knudsen) suffered greatly. You tell me what that’s worth.”
The city has liability insurance for up to $5 million per incident, City Manager R. Ben Bifoss says.