Traverse City Record-Eagle

November 28, 2012

Charges against Grand Traverse inspectors dismissed


TRAVERSE CITY — A judge dismissed charges against Grand Traverse County building and electrical inspectors in a multi-million dollar lawsuit suit over a teen's electrocution and drowning in Clinch Marina.

Thus far, the county is the only party completely dismissed from a lawsuit filed by Michael Knudsen's family after his death in 2011. An electrical leak killed Knudsen, 18, as he swam from a floating dock attached to the city-owned marina's outer breakwall.

Dale Stevens, former director of the county's construction code office, was dropped from the lawsuit by mutual consent of all parties in July. Thirteenth Circuit Court Judge Thomas Power dismissed all counts against the county's electrical inspector, Phillip Nault, in an order issued Monday.

"The judge found they did their work and they did their job and it was through no fault of their own that this happened," said Dave Benda, county administrator. "Nault was the electrical inspector, so he was there to inspect the plan to make sure they were done in accordance with code and they were."

Defending the two men cost at least $112,111 in legal fees, though the county has yet to receive a final bill, Benda said.

A city investigation determined a chafed and broken 220-volt cable at an electrical box, combined with the failure of the marina's electrical grounding system, resulted in electricity leaking into the water through the dock.

An autopsy report listed Knudsen's cause of death as a combination of electric shock and drowning.

Downstate attorney Geoffrey Fieger filed suit in September 2011 on behalf of Knudsen's family. In January, Fieger's office filed another suit on behalf of Knudsen's friend, Zachary Kott-Millard. That suit alleges Kott-Millard was shocked when he jumped into the water to save Knudsen, then endured mental anguish as he watched Knudsen die.

Dean Robb, co-counsel for the family, said the plaintiffs didn't oppose dropping the inspectors from the lawsuit.

Almost a dozen parties remain as defendants, including Traverse City, marina manager Barry Smith, and the firms that designed, engineered, and constructed the marina. Bob Cole, the city's director of public services and Smith's boss, was added as a defendant in August.

Traverse City also filed a cross claim lawsuit against the marina's design firm, general contractor and engineering firm.

"The file would fill a room now," Robb said. "During mediation everyone else was willing to try and resolve this, but the city offered zero."

The city doesn't know how much its paid to defend the lawsuit because bills go to its insurance company, City Manager Ben Bifoss said. The city has paid a $5,000 deductible.

The two suits are scheduled for a six-day trial in April.