Knutsen's family allege city police officers and volunteer EMS responders were negligent in not rescuing the young man. Knustsen, who was highly intoxicated, had climbed into the water at the harbor after getting into a fight that prompted a call for police to the scene.
Fred Knutsen was very drunk when he climbed from his boat into the water of the Dillingham Small Boat Harbor at around 1:50 a.m. on August 21, 2012. Neither the plaintiffs, his family, nor the defense, the City of Dillingham and two former police officers, dispute that fact. An autopsy put his blood alcohol level at .273. But a jury of 12 will decide whether or not those officers, the dispatcher and volunteer Fire and EMS responders did enough to save Knutsen that night.
Maybe ten minutes or so after he climbed into the water by his fishing boat Amy Marie, Fred Knutsen swam towards the middle of the harbor and slipped beneath the surface. The 25-year-old’s body was not recovered till the next morning.
In lengthy opening statements delivered to the jury Tuesday morning in Dillingham, attorneys for the plaintiffs and defendants agreed on much: Fred Knutsen had consumed a lot of alcohol, had been thrown out of a friend’s house after leaving the Sea Inn bar, had gotten into a brief fight with a friend who dropped him off at the harbor, then ran from police and climbed voluntarily into the water. He swore viciously at the officers and refused their efforts to pull him onboard. They agree that the officers threw him a life ring, and that half a dozen volunteer Fire/EMS personnel woke up from the dispatcher's call-out and got to the scene.
The disagreements will be sorted out over two weeks of testimony from witnesses and experts. Were the officers, Travis Schiaffo and Ray Golden (neither of whom work for DPD any longer) “taunting and teasing” Knutsen, as the plaintiffs claim, or were they using “verbal judo” to try and save him? Was Knutsen hanging on by a buoy for several minutes, or swimming freely in the water? Were they negligent to not throw a life ring sooner or not climb in the water themselves to try and save the belligerent young man? How long would it take until he was hypothermic, and if he became so, did that cloud his judgment in a way the officers should have recognized?
The case has been litigated for three years now. Michael Flannigan is the attorney for the estate of Fred Knutsen and Amber Knutsen, who are seeking damages from the City of Dillingham, former officers Schiaffo and Golden, and perhaps the Sea Inn bar.
“Police had a legal duty to help Mr. Knutsen, and do it reasonably, and do it whether or not he’s drunk,” Flannigan said, accusing them of failing to do so. His clients hope the jury will award them money to cover emotional pain and suffering, Knutsen’s lifetime of lost earnings, the value of the subsistence foods he is no longer providing to family and friends, and the ongoing emotional suffering for the two children he fathered with Patricia Byrne.
“Everybody’s life is worth something, and it’s worth more than just the dollars we put in our pocket,” Flannigan said of how the jury will be asked to calculate damages if they hold the defendants negligent.
The defense team is led by Frank Koziol, who represents clients through the Alaska Municipal League’s Joint Insurance Association.
“You cannot save a man who does not want to be saved,” Koziol responded in his opening argument. “All you can do is provide him a way to let him save himself,” which he said Knutsen refused to do.
He said the “very drunk” Knutsen was playing a dangerous game of “catch me if you can,” and that in his mind, getting away from the police would make him a "winner" and make the officers the "losers."
Judge Gregory Heath from Palmer is presiding over the trial. The jury includes several members over the required 12 to provide alternates. One man was dismissed just an hour into the trial for failing to stay awake.