Diver training agency PADI is to be called before a jury in Montana, USA in connection with the death of teenage scuba diver Linnea Mills in November 2020. A judge has overruled PADI’s denial of responsibility for the actions of the dive center and instructors involved in the incident.
Diverse carried the story of how Mills met her end in a mountain lake. The incident, partially captured on video by a fellow-trainee, led to a $12 million negligence lawsuit being filed by Mills’ parents and two other divers against Gull Dive of Missoula, its owners David & Jeannine Olson, instructors Debbie Snow and Seth Liston and PADI Worldwide.
The agency was accused of negligence in its oversight of a member-business, and now Missoula County District Judge Leslie Halligan has denied its claim that it should not be included as a defendant.
Mills, 18, had been on the second dive of a PADI Advanced Open Water Diver course in Lake MacDonald in Glacier National Park, north of her home city of Missoula, Montana.
An Open Water Diver, she had no previous cold water-diving experience. She had hired dive gear and a wetsuit from Gull Dive for the first dive of the course in another mountain lake but had been given no pre-dive briefing, according to the suit. Air temperatures had been sub-zero, and another trainee had lent Mills her wetsuit to help keep her warm.
Gull Dive had advised Mills to buy a drysuit for her second dive a few days later and she had purchased a secondhand custom-made suit that had come without an inflator. She was unaware that she needed one, and the instructors had failed to check her gear before setting out with her for Lake MacDonald.
The course was to be taught by Liston, described as having “hardly more experience” than his student, and newly certified instructor Snow, said to be unqualified to teach diving with a drysuit or at altitude, where reduced buoyancy can be an issue. Lake MacDonald has an elevation of 960m.
At the dive site they were joined by two other trainees, Bob Gentry and a 14-year-old referred to as EG, both of whom had recently completed their drysuit training.
When the instructors realized that Mills’ air supply could not be connected to her drysuit, she was told to use her BC for buoyancy control. Twenty kilograms of lead was placed in Mills’ drysuit and BC pockets rather than on a releasable weight-belt. It is alleged that no briefings were given.
Entering the water at 5pm in failing light, Snow took Mills and EG to 5m for about five minutes. Snow brought EG back up because he was uncomfortable, failing to notice how much air had already been squeezed out of Mills’ drysuit. She returned and, with Liston, took Mills, Gentry and another student down to 18m.
Gentry’s chest-mounted GoPro footage is said to show Mills standing on a ledge struggling to breathe but too overweight to ascend. Unable to get her instructor Snow’s attention, she signaled to Gentry for help, but as he swam over she overbalanced and started sinking rapidly.
Gentry caught up with her at 26m. She was showing signs of being crushed by her suit and he spent half a minute trying unsuccessfully to locate and release her weights to halt her descent, after which she lost her second stage. He tried to share his air but, in danger of running out, was forced to leave here at 32m and make a rapid ascent.
There was no surface cover but when Snow eventually surfaced she dived briefly to look for Mills, but failed to find her. On a later second dive, her body was found at 39m and brought up.
The lawsuit alleges that Jeannine Olsen told the coroner that a dive-buddy had witnessed Mills panicking before falling passively to the lakebed, but having shown no sign of difficulties at 12m. It also states that she had told Gentry, who has since become a friend of the Mills family, to say that he had been responsible for the fatality. It further states that the medical examiner had failed to note bruising caused by the drysuit squeeze.
The National Park Service was said to have conducted an investigation because Gull Dive had not been authorized to operate in the park, according to the Missoula Current, which ran the original report on the suit. An earlier legal action into another fatality in 2019 was ongoing against Gull Dive, but because the dive school had failed to report the incident to PADI, Mills and her family would have been unaware of this.
PADI had submitted a document denying vicarious responsibility for Mills’ death, arguing that Gull Dive and its instructors were neither agents of nor employed by the agency. It argued that the disclaimer form signed by Mills before diving should have made it clear that PADI could not be held responsible should anything go wrong.
But the judge noted that PADI did exert some control over Gull Dive and its instructors by virtue of the phrase in its membership agreements: “Except as otherwise provided in this membership agreement…” and because Gull Dive and the instructors were contractually obliged to follow PADI’s standards and instructions.
Also, an instructor could be an “ostensible” agent of PADI if Mills believed that instructor to represent PADI because of PADI’s claims. The judge felt it would be for the jury to decide to what extent PADI could be held responsible for Mills’ death.