By CJ Baker
Via Wyoming News Exchange
POWELL — The family of a kayaking guide who died in Yellowstone National Park two years ago is suing the company that employed him, its owners and several of its employees. In the suit, Timothy Conant’s mother alleges that negligence by OARS and its workers caused the 23-year-old’s death.
Conant, of Salt Lake City, fell into Yellowstone Lake on the afternoon of June 14, 2017, while working to help a client who had capsized. Conant was never able to get back into his kayak and remained in the water for an extended period of time, ultimately becoming hypothermic and drowning before rescuers arrived.
It was the first death on the lake in roughly 20 years.
In a complaint filed in Park County’s District Court earlier this month, Conant’s mother, Molly James, contends that OARS breached their duty of care to Conant by: “forcing” him to guide a trip in dangerous conditions, sending him out with two other “extremely novice” guides and failing to adequately train all three guides on safety equipment and emergency procedures.
“[T]here was no one on that tour on June 14, 2017 that was properly trained to handle the type of situation that occurred, and which was entirely foreseeable based upon the severe weather conditions and frigid temperatures,” says a portion of the complaint, filed by attorney Jalie Meinecke of Cody and Sheridan.
Conant had been working for OARS for only 45 days, but he was the most experienced of the three guides; his family says he had “almost no experience kayaking” before joining the company.
Wyoming OSHA, which oversees workplace safety in the state, fined OARS $20,586 in connection with the incident, finding several “serious” violations. OSHA officials said the guides — all in their first year — were not trained in rescue techniques, were not familiar with the company’s emergency response procedures and were only wearing everyday clothing. In its report on the incident, the National Park Service quoted multiple people on the tour saying that the high winds made for “unfavorable kayaking conditions” that afternoon.
A spokesman for OARS did not return a phone message seeking comment on the lawsuit.
OSHA records indicate Conant’s death was the first and only time that OARS has been penalized by the agency. Further, the Park Service’s report on the incident said the California-based outfitting company had no recent record of safety violations or any other issues in Yellowstone.
The company’s general manager, Tyler Wendt, told WyoFile last year that OARS made “substantial changes” to its practices after Conant’s death. That included “doubling down” on training, adding “thermal protection” for guides and guests and having a guide bring an inflatable kayak to use in the event of a rescue, WyoFile quoted Wendt as saying.
“We have been wrestling with an adequate operational response since the day it happened and aim to do everything we can to prevent a re-occurrence,” Wendt told the online news outlet.
OARS provides various guided experiences across the West and internationally. It’s a licensed concessionaire in both Grand Teton National Park and Yellowstone, where it primarily provides half-day kayak tours of the West Thumb Geyser Basin.
On June 14, 2017, Conant and two other guides took a group of nine clients to the geyser basin. They were on the way back when gusty winds apparently tipped one customer over, according to statements included in a Park Service report. The guides got the client back into his kayak, but Conant fell out of his own kayak, possibly hitting his head in the process, the Park Service investigation said; he quickly surfaced and grabbed onto his upside-down kayak with a “bear hug.”
Meanwhile, the client’s kayak remained full of water and he began showing signs of hypothermia, so the guides decided they needed to tow him to shore.
Thinking Conant was OK, the other guides left him behind. One guide said “she thought Conant already knew how to get back into his kayak” and the other said she “had the same assumption,” a park ranger wrote in a later report.
However, Conant never got out of the 38- to 45-degree water. By the time a guide returned to help him, he was floating motionless and appeared confused. It was at that point — at 5:41 p.m., some time into the incident — that the guide used her cellphone to call a ranger for help. Her phone then died. With limited information about who needed to be rescued and where, it took Park Service personnel another 50 minutes to reach Conant.
In the meantime, two other kayakers tried to help rescue the guide, but by the time they got Conant out of the lake and onto their kayaks, he was unconscious. When a Park Service boat arrived at 6:32 p.m., Conant was not breathing. First responders were unable to revive him.
Beyond faulting OARS itself, the suit from Conant’s mother and family also names several individuals as defendants.
The suit alleges Conant’s direct supervisor, Chase Vincent, should have canceled the tour or gone with the group amid the poor conditions; OARS Wyoming Regional Manager Eric Riley should have better trained Conant and the other two guides; and Nathan and Kelly Bricker of Utah should have told Conant about the dangers of the job when they recruited Conant to work for OARS.
Two officers of OARS, Tyler and Christopher Wendt, are also named in the complaint. It says the Wendts promised to assist Molly James “in every way possible to help address the costs associated with Tim [Conant]’s death,” but never did, accusing them of trying to “create a false sense of security” for James.
“... the Defendants, and each of them, should be held responsible for damages to Tim’s family, associated with his wrongful death,” says a portion of the complaint, which reserves the right to name other defendants.
In court documents, Meinecke indicated that she filed the suit in Park County because that’s where the incident happened. However, that’s incorrect, as all of the events took place in Teton County. That could present a problem for the suit moving forward in Park County’s District Court. Given that the litigation involves defendants in several different states, it’s also possible that the matter could be moved to federal district court.
After being formally served with the suit, OARS and the other defendants will have a few weeks to file responses.