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Suit seeks $4.25 million from rafting company

October 05, 2006|by DAVE McMILLION

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - It was Sept. 30, 2004, and the Shenandoah River's water level was so high due to the effects of Hurricane Jeannie that it had spilled out of its banks, according to court records.

According to a suit filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court, River Riders Inc. was the only commercial whitewater outfitter to conduct trips on the river that day.

When five rafts operated by the Harpers Ferry, W.Va., outfitter hit an area in the "staircase" near the U.S. 340 bridge near Harpers Ferry, four of the five rafts threw out passengers, according to two suits filed against River Riders in Jefferson County Circuit Court. Some of the riders suffered serious injuries and one drowned, the suits state.

Twenty people have filed suit seeking about $4.25 million in damages from River Riders, while Kathy L. Freeman, wife of Roger Freeman, the man who drowned, has sued River Riders Inc. in another suit seeking unspecified damages, according to circuit court records.

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The rafting trip was sponsored by Freeman's employer, Kaiser Permanente, as part of a team-building exercise and was to run from Millville, W.Va. to Brunswick, Md., according to Kathy Freeman's suit.

The normal water level of the Shenandoah River is two to four feet, but at 8 a.m. on Sept. 30, 2004, it had crested at a floodstage of 13 1/2 feet, according to the other suit.

The river was out of its banks and covered some of the low-lying roads and parking lots along the bank, the suit states.

The "staircase" is a section in the river where water flows over a series of rock ledges above and below the U.S. 340 bridge, records state.

In one section of the staircase, two of the first three rafts in the group flipped over, causing the boats to lose all of their passengers and guides, Kathy Freeman's suit said. The third raft "dumptrucked," meaning that all its people, except for the guide, were thrown from the raft, court records state.

The fourth raft made it safely through the same area but the fifth raft, in which Roger Freeman was riding, capsized and threw out all of the riders, court papers said. An employee of River Riders recovered Freeman's body from the river and attempted to revive him, the suit states.

Freeman said he was a "non-swimmer" and he was placed in a raft with which had other nonswimmers in it, the suit states.

The raft - known as the "slow boat" - was supposed to avoid rough waters but all the rafts passed through the same waters, the suit states.

Two raft riders surfaced under a raft after they were thrown in the river and one raft was "caused to shoot up in an almost vertical position" in the rough water, court papers stated.

Freeman said River Riders owed her husband the duty not to act in a reckless manner and the second suit alleged River Riders was negligent and careless by failing to call off the trip, among other points, court papers stated.

Besides River Riders Inc., Matthew Knott, an owner of River Riders, was listed as a defendant in Freeman's suit.

Repeated attempts to reach Knott on Tuesday and Wednesday were unsuccessful.

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