May 31, 2012 | Volume 42, No.22

Drowning victim's family sues town

The family of a 14-year-old boy who drowned near the Port Chilkoot Dock has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Haines Borough, saying the municipality demonstrated gross negligence, including by not posting hazard signs at the popular swimming beach.

The suit filed May 23 in state Superior Court seeks in excess of $1 million. Andrew Williamson died while attempting to swim with two friends to the dock’s lightering float. The accident occurred May 29, 2010, on a sunny Saturday when the beach was crowded with other users.

“The borough breached the duty of reasonable care owed to Andrew Williamson in failing to safely maintain the premises,” including failing to warn of the dangers of swimming at low temperatures, failing to provide lifesaving equipment at the dock and failing to post lifeguards there, the suit claims.

The suit says that before Williamson’s death, the borough received numerous complaints about people jumping off the docks, including the lightering float. “Such complaints were made public on numerous occasions, including at the Aug. 11, 2009 Haines Borough Assembly meeting.”

The borough also was aware that minor children swam out to the lightering dock, the suit said. “Defendants owed a duty to safely maintain the premises at the Port Chilkoot Dock.”

Residents who use the beach were worried this week that the suit could end up curtailing use of the summer recreation spot that’s also the location of the annual Polar Bear Dip Jan. 1.

“Because of the lawsuit, I’d hate to see the rest of us lose access,” said Tammy Piper, a lifelong resident who used the beach in her childhood and later took her children there. She’s been among users who’ve championed use of the beach by the public during dock development.

“When are you responsible for your own actions?” Piper asked. She said Williamson’s parents should have known their son was playing in the water there.

Williamson, described by police as not a good swimmer, was with two classmates who set out for the lightering float. One of the trio reached it, but Williamson and another turned around.

Swimmers on the beach, including ones accustomed to Lynn Canal’s icy waters, immediately dove where Williamson went down but said sediment and pollen in the water virtually blinded them. The borough posted signs near the beach and stationed life rings along the dock pier after Williamson’s death.

Williamson’s drowning was the second accidental death near the dock in 20 years. Gerry Hicks, 9, died there in 1990, apparently after falling off the dock pier. The boy’s family successfully sued the City of Haines, which led to closure of the dock to the public for many years.

Williamson’s parents, Larry and Chetra Williamson, now live in Astor, Fla. Larry Williamson had no comment when reached by the CVN this week.