A settlement was reached Thursday in a lawsuit filed by the mother and estate of a Walla Walla University student who went missing and presumably drowned eight years ago during a scuba diving class in Puget Sound.
The confidential agreement ended what was expected to be a two-week-long jury trial in Walla Walla County Superior Court. Testimony began Wednesday.
In the wrongful-death suit, Marsha Booth claimed the university and diving instructor Gene Bruns of Walla Walla were negligent in events leading to the death of her daughter, Shari Booth, of Brush Prairie, Wash.
Bruns’ attorney, Ruth Nielsen of Seattle, told the Union-Bulletin after the trial concluded that the amount of money Marsha Booth was seeking was not disclosed and terms of the settlement will not be released.
In addition, no one is admitting any liability.
“I think it’s very good they resolved it because we don’t know what happened to (Shari Booth) and it’s very sad. I think everybody can be happy with a resolution,” Nielsen said.
Booth, 19, a freshman biology major, was on a three-day trip to the university’s Rosario Beach Marine Laboratory near Anacortes, Wash., on May 19, 2008, when she failed to surface during an advanced dive.
After two days of searching and with weather conditions deteriorating, search crews and divers called off the recovery efforts. Her body never was found.
The class was taking one of about six dives. Booth had been diving with a partner. The two were with a larger group, which had traveled to the Marine Laboratory, a base for the dives.
In her suit filed in May 2011, Marsha Booth — who now lives in California — alleged Bruns was “grossly negligent and demonstrated reckless indifference” to Shari Booth’s safety.
The lawsuit claimed that training and materials used in the open-water course were deficient, Booth wasn’t properly instructed in use of the equipment, wasn’t adequately prepared for the dives and wasn’t appropriately screened.
Also, the dive location was inappropriate because of its strong current and frigid temperatures, the suit claimed, and Bruns failed to enter the water to save Booth, despite seeing her bubble trail leaving the area.
In Nielsen’s opening statement at this week’s trial, she described Booth as an adventurous, charming young woman. “There is a lot of disagreement” as to facts in the case, but all agree “this is a tragedy,” Nielsen said.
She denied the plaintiff’s claims of negligence, pointing out Bruns had properly instructed thousands of students during his decades-long career and acted reasonably the day Booth went missing.
“He was confident Ms. Booth absolutely knew the skills she needed to do this dive,” Nielsen told the jury.
But she added that diving is a risk activity, accidents can occur “and in this case, we don’t know what happened,” she said.
Heidi Mandt, the university’s attorney from Portland, maintained in her opening statement that since the university hadn’t hired Bruns — but instead contracted for his instructional services — the institution didn’t control his classes and therefore wasn’t negligent.
In fact, Mandt added, nobody should be found negligent because no evidence exists as to why Booth didn’t surface from underwater.
“It was a tragic accident,” she said.