MOORHEAD — The family of a Moorhead girl who drowned during a youth outing at a state park plans to file a wrongful death lawsuit against the city of Moorhead, the Moorhead Police Department and the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the family's attorney said Tuesday, Aug. 20.
Grace Bettie, 9, was taking part in a Moorhead police summer youth program with nearly 180 other children when she drowned in a crowded swimming pond at Buffalo River State Park near Glyndon, Minn., on June 27, 2018.
William Lubov, a Golden Valley, Minn., attorney, retained by the girl’s family last August, told The Forum the three parties were to be notified of the suit Tuesday and that as soon as he receives “proof of service” from the three defendants, the lawsuit will be filed in Clay County District Court.
A Minnesota DNR spokesperson said Tuesday that the agency had not yet received notice of the lawsuit. A Moorhead police spokesperson referred questions to City Hall.
Speaking on behalf of the city, Darin Richardson of the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust said the city was served with the lawsuit papers late Tuesday afternoon.
"We’ll be defending and protecting the interests of the city of Moorhead," said Richardson, a claims manager with the self-insured membership cooperative. He said the city and its police department will be considered as one defendant in the lawsuit.
Richardson said the victim's family previously made a claim against the city over the girl's death. He said he recently notified Lubov that they felt there was no negligence on the city's part.
"Subsequently, they filed a lawsuit against us and the state of Minnesota," Richardson said.
The girl’s drowning shook the community and attendees at the swimming pond that day.
“I felt like an accident was waiting to happen and then it did,” Broadbent said at the time.
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She and another witness also said after it became clear Bettie was missing, park rangers searched nearby trails first before lifeguards went into the water.
It was the fourth drowning in the swimming hole since 1996, according to Forum archives. Two near drownings also occurred there during that period.
On Oct. 1, 2018, after an investigation, prosecutors announced that no criminal charges would be filed in connection with the drowning. The Otter Tail County Attorney’s Office reviewed the investigation report and made the decision on whether to file charges, due to a potential conflict of interest in Clay County.
The memo declining charges and a 60-page report were released as a result of a public records request by The Forum.
The youth outing involved 178 children and 37 adult mentors that day. Also, three lifeguards were on duty and at least three other park employees were on hand when the drowning occurred, the memo said.
In declining criminal charges, the memo stated that while some witnesses said there was a lack of supervision that day, other witnesses said adult mentors “were monitoring the children from the water, as well as from picnic tables and the beach area.”
The memo stated that based on the circumstances, prosecutors do “not believe criminal charges are warranted,” nor is there an “identifiable individual that could be held responsible via criminal charges.”
Just days after that announcement, a DNR administrator said the agency couldn’t discuss the drowning because of a pending civil claim against the state.
Philip Leversedge, deputy director of the DNR’s Division of Parks and Trails, did say that the drowning prompted a review of the park’s swimming pond policies. That review determined no policy changes were necessary, adding that the park “does its best” to provide adequate lifeguards at the pond but also relies on adults to supervise children, Leversedge said.
The pond did not open for the 2019 season, citing an inability to hire enough lifeguards. The park needed to hire a minimum of six lifeguards, but was only able to hire two, a spokesperson said.