Family of teen killed on Auke Lake sues city, two others

CBJ denies allegations of responsibility

The family of Savannah Cayce, the 16-year-old fatally injured in a Jet Ski accident two years ago on Auke Lake, is suing the City and Borough of Juneau for damages, according to a complaint filed in Juneau Superior Court last month.

Also listed as defendants in the suit are Juneau residents Robert Herring, 21, and Shawn Z. Miller, 21, both of whom were involved in the Jet Ski crash. At the time of the crash, Miller was employed by the Empire as a printing press operator.

Herring towed Cayce and a friend on an inner tube behind his Jet Ski June 23, 2012, whipping the tube around in big circles, according to police reports. Attached to the Jet Ski by a 20-foot rope, the inner tube and its passengers veered out of control and collided with Miller’s Jet Ski, inflicting fatal head injuries on Cayce. She died two days later in a Seattle hospital.

Cayce’s mother, Sunny Haight, representing Cayce’s estate and her father, brother and sister, is suing the CBJ, Herring and Miller for negligence. Haight is represented by local attorney Mark Choate. Haight is also suing the defendants for resulting emotional distress and illness of the family, “including, but not limited to, stomachache, sleeplessness, nightmares, anxiety and depression.”

The complaint against the city is related to its management of Auke Lake. According to the June 17 complaint, the mixed use of Auke Lake, a popular spot for swimmers and motorized and non-motorized boaters on sunny summer days, was not managed well, directly contributing to the Jet Ski incident and the resulting death.

In the complaint, Choate wrote that the city was “negligent in failing to enforce CBJ ordinances controlling use of motorized vehicles on Auke Lake;” “failing to establish or post a speed limit for motorized vessels on Auke Lake;” “failing to establish a horsepower limit for motorized vessels on Auke Lake;” “failing to establish separate hours of use of Auke Lake for swimmers, non-motorized vessels, and motorized vessels;” “failing to establish defined directions of travel for motorized vessels within the motorized area of Auke Lake;” and “failing to post appropriate signage to ensure safe mixed use of Auke Lake,” among other allegations.

The city denied all allegations of negligence contributing to Cayce’s death, according to city attorney Amy Mead’s answer to the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday.

Mead is representing the city in the suit. In the answer she submitted this week, she asked for the case against the city to be dismissed, saying the incident and Cayce’s death was out of CBJ’s control.

“Plaintiffs’ damages were caused in whole or in part by the negligent acts or omissions of persons or entities over whom the CBJ had no responsibility or control,” Mead wrote in the court document. “Plaintiffs’ damages were not caused by any breach of duty the CBJ owed Plaintiffs.”

Since well before the accident, there have been restrictions on where and when motorized vehicles can operate on the lake, which is owned by the State of Alaska. In 2007, the CBJ banned motorized vehicles near the shore of the lake to keep it safe for swimmers. Mead cited the related ordinance in the CBJ answer.

Since the Jet Ski crash, the city has been working to improve management of the lake, but it has encountered a roadblock from the assembly.

In January 2013, the city Parks and Recreation Department introduced the Auke Lake Management Plan as a response to the 2012 Jet Ski collision. Among other suggestions, the plan proposed limiting boats to 10-horsepower engines. Because the Juneau Police Department does not have a boat or marine officers, enforcement on the lake is tricky, the Empire previously reported. The management plan found that the lake could only safely accommodate one high-horsepower motorized vehicle at a time.

In May 2013, the assembly committee of the whole rejected a revised version of the plan. Parks and Recreation superintendent George Schaaf said at the time that “horsepower is directly related to accident rates. Wake and speed limits are impossible to enforce.”

Assemblywoman Mary Becker said she didn’t “feel that (the plan is) ready to go.”

In January, the assembly again decided to table the Auke Lake Management Plan until Parks and Recreation could collect more data on the various issues it encompassed. It asked to revisit the plan at the end of this summer and instructed the department to continue to enforce current ordinances and regulations relating to the Lake.

In April, the assembly voted to remove the 16-foot size limit for vessels on Auke Lake. Members of the public came to that meeting to speak against removing the limit “out of respect for the accident,” resident Mike Peterson said at the meeting. The ordinance was narrowly adopted 5-4, with Karen Crane, Loren Jones, Jesse Kiehl and Kate Troll voting against.

The complaints against Herring and Miller stem from the allegation that the two “owed a duty of care” to Cayce and the other users of Auke Lake. According to police reports, Herring had very little experience using a Jet Ski and no experience towing passengers. He drove the Jet Ski at about 40 mph with the two teens attached at the back and “failed to anticipate the trajectory” of the rope and the tube when he made an abrupt turn near Miller’s Jet Ski. Choate wrote that “Herring’s negligent operation of his Jet Ski was a substantial factor in causing Savannah Cayce’s fatal injuries and the harms and losses suffered by plaintiffs.”

Choate wrote that Miller “failed to maintain a sufficient situational awareness of other users of Auke Lake, including the Jet Ski driven by Robert Herring and the inner tube carrying Savannah Cayce.”

“Miller’s attempts to roll his Jet Ski by making quick, deep turns created an unreasonable risk of harm to other users of Auke Lake given the number of users on the lake that day,” the complaint states.

Herring declined to comment. Miller is currently in custody of Lemon Creek Correctional Center for recent and unrelated charges of rifling through cars parked at the University of Alaska Southeast. No attorney has been listed yet for either Herring or Miller, according to online court documents.

Choate was unable to comment by press time and Haight did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

Hearing dates for the case have not yet been set.

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com. Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.

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