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A CNN report in 2006 stated that "[a]t least 50 deaths have been reported already this year in whitewater sports on the nation's rivers, according to a nonprofit organization's Web site. American Whitewater's accident list includes 25 deaths on rafting trips in 12 states. Seventeen more people have died in kayak upsets and eight in other whitewater drowning's through the middle of August." Tragically, these are not rare, isolated incidents.
Rafting companies often advertise trips with the most adventurous navigable rapids (Class IV-V rapids) as being appropriate for almost all ages and any skill level. They do not explain however, that these ratings are not adjusted in their advertising or otherwise as the river level rises or the speed of the current increases, both of which can have a dramatic effect on the safety of the clients they take money from. Typically, a rafting trip begins at a very calm section of the river and once the real dangers become apparent, it is too late.
This is what happened to a mother of three in her late 50's. She and her sister were looking for a float trip with a little bit of rapids. What they got were Class IV plus rapids that resulted in her death.
When taking reservations, rafting companies do not explain that "high water" years are the money making years. The rafting companies need the high water years in order to make up for low water years where income is also low. Therefore, the financial incentive is for rafting companies to put as many people on trips as they can, despite the river conditions. Rafting companies know that in "high water" years, the chances of flipping a boat and a customer going on a "swim" increase.
Industry standards exist which require boats to stay in close contact with each other in order to quickly retrieve "swimmers" to prevent drowning's. The guides on this trip were apparently more concerned with hitting the high water than following important safety protocol because when this mother and grandmother was flipped out of the boat, she floated downriver for over a mile before her lifeless body was retrieved.
When we were hired, the family wanted answers. The answers we would get for the family were shocking. When asked what screening procedures the company had in order to ensure that customers were appropriately qualified to participate in the trip they had been sold, one guide testified that they didn't do any screening; they expected the customers to screen themselves.
Additionally, while doing our investigation, we found that the company had rules that required each raft to be visible to the raft in front of and behind it so each raft could watch for "swimmers" in order to be able to get customers out of the river quickly if need be. One guide testified that if he had been in front of our client's raft, he could have gotten her out of the water very quickly. Tragically, he was not there and neither was any other guide. Our client was violently thrown out of the raft into the freezing snow melt off and traveled over a mile down the river before her lifeless body was retrieved. While the answers we obtained were heartbreaking, they also helped bring some closure for the family and were able to successfully settle the case.
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