Victim's family alleges negligence in drowning lawsuit
By ANITA MILLER - News Editor
Posted: Wednesday, Nov 16, 2005 - 03:53:23 pm CST
The family of a Texas State University student who drowned after jumping off the balcony at Joe's Crab Shack nearly six months ago has filed a wrongful death suit against the university and Landry's Restaurants.
Sam Bonnin, the father of Jason Lee Bonnin, filed the lawsuit in the 207th Judicial District Court in Hays County seeking unspecified damages for the loss of his son. The petition also calls for a jury trial.
Bonnin, who was a server at Joe's Crab Shack, drowned after jumping from the restaurant into the swirling waters beneath the chute at Spring Lake Dam after his shift ended on April 21. His body was recovered by the San Marcos Area Recovery Team hours later from one of three submerged compartments in the restaurant's foundation.
Houston attorney Chad Dunn, who is representing Sam Bonnin of Houston, said the suit addresses both the university and the restaurant because both were negligent - Texas State for failing to make and keep the area safe for swimming and Landry's for not discouraging what he says was a long-standing tradition of employees jumping from the balcony.
Both the dam and building that now houses the restaurant are more than 100 years old, with the dam originally built to power a gristmill in the adjacent building. The three submerged compartments originally housed turbines.
?There is evidence of repairs made to the dam that increased the turbulence of the water,? Dunn said, referring to the rebuilding of the chute after it was damaged in the flood of October 1998. The lawsuit alleges the repairs, which were overseen by both state and federal agencies, ?created a dangerous condition? that had ?previously not existed.?
?This has been a long-term swimming hole and it was expected by all the engineers and folks involved it would continue to be used that way,? Dunn said. ?If you look at the area on the downside of the falls, there's a stairway, there's handles. It was clearly set up as a swimming hole.
?When the repairs were made some notification should have been made to folks that this was no longer a safe swimming area. At a bare minimum a study should have been conducted to see if it was,? he continued. ?When the circumstances changed, no provisions were taken to inform the public ?what you've been doing for decades you can't do anymore - it's not safe.'?
Bill Fly, university attorney, declined to comment except to say ?the university does not feel responsible for this incident, as tragic as it may be.?
Concerning Landry's, Dunn said Joe's Crab Shack employees told police the night that Bonnin drowned that the restaurant had ?what they allege was a long-term policy of not allowing employees? to jump from the building. ?But what's clear from talking to folks who worked there, that policy was rarely if ever enforced.?
Dunn said on the night that Bonnin drowned, he was among three people who had jumped from the building and that one of them was a fellow employee of the restaurant.
?On the night of the incident he didn't get killed on the first jump. He gets out, walks back through the restaurant with two other folks in wet clothing. I don't see how management could not have been aware of what was going on.?
A call to Landry's Restaurant's corporate office was not returned on Tuesday.
Just last week, representatives of the university, city and community were told that the dam chute, as rebuilt, sends water at an angle that is 18 degrees different from before the rebuilding.
San Marcos Area Dive Team Lt. Dan Misiaszek, who is also the man who pulled Bonnin's body from the submerged compartment, told the River Committee that water now is forced directly into a retaining wall which splits it, sending half back toward the restaurant where it creates a whirlpool that sweeps whatever is caught in it into one of the compartments.
A month after the drowning, Misiaszek spoke publicly about the dangerous whirlpool but added that except for that area, swimming is safe. ?Only swim on the downstream side of the waterfall,? he said then.
The committee was formed not long after Bonnin's death and immediately ordered signs to be posted warning of the dangerous currents.
University Police spent several weekends handing out flyers about river safety and visiting with swimmers.
Dunn said that speaks directly to the allegation of negligence. ?After his life was taken, the signs go up, that's what we do know.?
He said he's still looking into the rebuilding of the chute but is ?afraid the dam was constructed in a matter to make it more visually appealing rather than having the direct concern of safety.?