Knutsen mostly to blame for his own death, says jury

Sep 13, 2017

All twelve jurors (it only takes 10 for a verdict in a civil trial) agreed that Fred Knutsen was 90 percent at fault for his Aug. 21, 2012 drowning. Former DPD officer Ramon Golden was 10 percent to blame, said the jury, because of his inflammatory language that did not help de-escalate the situation. Knutsen's two children were awarded $38,000 total, to be paid by the city of Dillingham or its insurance company. However, that amount is subject to paying the plaintiff's attorney, and possibly having to pay 90 percent of the defense legal bill after losing the case.

The Dillingham Small Boat Harbor, where Fred Knutsen drowned and died on Aug. 21, 2012. The family alleged police and other responders were negligent in trying to coax or pull the 25-year-old out, but a 12 person jury put most of the blame on Knutsen himself.
Credit KDLG

KDLG: A lengthy civil trial wrapped up Monday when a 12-person jury unanimously agreed that 25-year-old Fred Knutsen bore most of the responsibility for his Aug. 21, 2012 drowning death in the Dillingham harbor. Former DPD officer Ramon Golden was found 10 percent to blame for using language that “inflamed the situation rather than de-escalating it,” said the jury.

Knutsen’s two children were each awarded damages of over $190,000, totaling more than $381,000, but because Knutsen was found 90 percent responsible, the defense will be required to pay 10 percent, or $38,000, to the plaintiffs. This was not considered a significant win for the plaintiffs, whose attorney had litigated the case for three years prior to trial.

In 2014 the Knutsen family filed suit against the city of Dillingham, former officers Golden and Travis Schiaffo, and the Sea Inn Bar, alleging that each had been somehow negligent in not saving Knutsen’s life. The young man had been highly intoxicated and belligerent that night, and climbed from his fishing vessel into the harbor water to keep away from police. The officers had responded to the scene after taking a report of a fight Knutsen had been involved in. They followed him to the water’s edge, and attempted for some ten minutes to coax him back aboard the vessel. Instead he swam towards the middle of the harbor and drowned.

The plaintiffs and defense came armed with mounds of files for the three week trial that has been litigated for three years.
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As plaintiff, Amber Knutsen claimed the defendants were “legally responsible for harm suffered by Fred Knutsen before his death, and for the losses caused to the deceased’s minor children and other dependents by his death.”

The trial lasted three weeks and involved long days of intense testimony and evidence, including the officers’ voice recordings of the final minutes of Knutsen’s life. After the verdict was handed down, Judge Gregory Heath reminded the jurors they were entitled to free counseling if they desired.

The 12 jurors were mostly from Togiak, Manokotak, and New Stuyahok, with one from Aleknagik and one from Dillingham. Earlier in the trial, Heath fined and sent home two women from Togiak who had gotten drunk and failed to show up on time, and another man was dismissed on day one for falling asleep.

The defendants' attorney Frank Koziol making opening arguments to the jury in late August.
Credit KDLG

Jury deliberations began on Friday, Sept. 8, as the 12 took the evidence and arguments under careful consideration through the lens of Heath’s 51 pages of instructions. The last eight pages of the instructions read similar to a tax form: “Was Ramon Golden grossly negligent as to Claim 4? If you answered yes, proceed to answer the next question. If you answer no, then proceed to Part V,” etc.

There were seven claims of negligence or gross negligence against Travis Schiaffo, Ray Golden, or the city of Dillingham. From the jury instructions:

“(1) Plaintiff alleges that these officers should have asked the police dispatcher to page EMS to assist the officers in rescuing Fred Knutsen from the water and that these officers’ negligence was a substantial factor in causing Mr. Knutsen’s death.

(2) Plaintiff alleges that these officers should have left the boat at Mr. Knutsen’s request and that these officers’ gross negligence was a substantial factor in causing Mr. Knutsen’s death.

(3) Plaintiff alleges that these officers should have immediately thrown Mr. Knutsen a life ring when he refused to grab the rope available to him and that these officers’ gross negligence was a substantial factor in causing Mr. Knutsen’s death.

(4) Plaintiff alleges that officer Golden delayed the fetching of a life ring when Mr. Knutsen swam away and his gross negligence was a substantial factor in causing Mr Knutsen’s death.

(5) Plaintiff alleges that the language these officers employed inflamed the situation rather than de-escalating it and that these officers’ gross negligence was a substantial factor in causing Mr. Knutsen’s death.”

Two additional claims were made, one against a third former officer for not allowing August Johnson, a citizen who was near the scene, to try and rescue Knutsen. The other was against the dispatcher that night for broadcasting a call-out to EMS that was unclear if Knutsen was still in the water or not.

Six of those claims failed with the jury. They did find, however, that officer Golden’s language had “inflamed the situation” as alleged in number five. The officers “taunted” Knutsen, according to the plaintiffs, and Golden made a particularly crude remark about coming back later to pull his body from the water.

The jury was also asked by the defense if Fred Knutsen was negligent in causing his own death. Heath defined negligence here as the failure to use reasonable care to prevent harm to oneself or others. “A person can be negligent by acting or by failing to act. A person is negligent if he or she does something that a reasonably careful person would not do in the same situation or fails to do something that a reasonably careful person would do in the same situation. The law does not require exception, caution or skill, only reasonable care,” he wrote.

The jury agreed that Knutsen, who was drunk, hurled vicious obscenities at the officers, and refused their attempts to pull him from the water, was negligent.

There was no negligence assigned to the Sea Inn Bar for allegedly serving Knutsen too much to drink.

The jury only awarded damages for “economic” losses to Knutsen’s two children, Callen and Cassidy, totaling a little over $190,000 to each. They did not award damages for “non-economic” losses, such as for future sorrow or grief, to the children. Nor did the jury award any damages for lost subsistence food contributions, lifetime earnings, or any losses to other relatives from Knutsen’s death.

Their final instruction was to determine the percentage of fault for Fred Knustsen’s death, and the jury put 90 percent of that on the deceased himself. Ray Golden was given the remaining 10 percent fault.

Thus the city, Golden’s employer at the time, is responsible for paying a little over $38,000, or 10 percent of the total damages, to the plaintiffs.

Does that amount to a win for the Knutsen family? Certainly the monetary award fell short of the plaintiffs’ expectations, as they had argued during the trial about losses into the millions of dollars. But the jury offered a symbolic gesture that the police could have performed better on the scene that tragic night, agreeing at least in a small way with the heart of the family’s lawsuit.

The plaintiffs’ attorney, Michael Flannigan, did not return a request for comment Tuesday. The defense attorney, Frank Koziol discussed the jury’s findings but chose not to offer an opinion on the outcome, except to say he had enormous respect for the jury’s hard work, attentiveness, and due diligence. Mayor Alice Ruby said she also was not prepared to weigh in on the case Tuesday.

The case could be appealed, though neither side showed an immediate interest in doing so. Judge Heath may also soon be asked to decide who pays the legal fees. Alaska is a “loser pays” state, so the family of Fred Knutsen may soon find itself with 90 percent of an enormous bill from the defendants’ attorney Frank Koziol.

Reach the author at dave@kdlg.org or 907.842.5281.