The family of a teenager who drowned while diving off a cliff at a recreational area will collect more than $3.9 million.
“The background was that there had been seven previous drownings under the ownership, and despite notice of various issues, there were not any lifeguards on staff,” said attorney Matthew Devoti of Casey, Devoti & Brockland.
According to the suit, 19-year-old Cole J. Duffell was diving from bluffs into a flooded quarry turned swimming hole operated by Offsets Recreation near Fredericktown on Independence Day 2018. After one such jump, he did not reemerge from the water.
He said the defense argued that the decedent accepted the risk of a dangerous activity and should have known those hazards as an experienced swimmer. They also alleged he’d been consuming alcohol. Devoti acknowledged the presence of alcohol but said it was not hidden and yet management did nothing.
Devoti said the establishment was negligent in not properly staffing the enterprise during one of its busiest holidays.
“There were only two people working at the time of Cole’s death, one of which was at the front gate greeting people and taking money, so they were nowhere near where folks were swimming or jumping,” he said. “I think the jury saw that too and that was a very important point that we made during the case.”
The jury faulted the business and the landowner, Gary Henson, but issued a defense verdict for co-owner Rebecca Henson.
Devoti said that some of the jurors thanked him for bringing the matter to court.
“I think these folks were glad that somebody took this case on and tried it in the community,” he said.
Clinton Roberts of Roberts & Roberts, an attorney for the defendants, did not return a request for comment.
$3.9 million verdict
Breakdown: $1,942,200 on wrongful death claim against Offsets and Gary Henson; $1 million each in aggravating circumstances against Offsets and Henson
Venue: Madison County Circuit Court
Case Number/Date: 19MD-CC00054/Aug. 1, 2023
Judge: Wendy Wexler Horn
Plaintiffs’ Experts: Michael Oostman, North Reading, Massachusetts (aquatic safety); Russell Deidiker, Farmington (pathologist)
Caption: Joseph and Melissa Duffell v. Offsets Recreation LLC, Gary E. Henson and Rebecca S. Henson
Plaintiffs’ Attorneys: Matthew Devoti and Matthew Casey, Casey, Devoti & Brockland, St. Louis
Defendants’ Attorney: Clinton Roberts, Roberts & Roberts, Farmington