Autumn Lee died at the age of thirty-three as a result of the negligence of a rafting company. She was a much- loved wife and mother to six children (including two step-children), and a highly respected sales representative at Willamette Valley Winery.
Autumn died on a commercially guided float trip on a family-friendly stretch of the McKenzie River, mainly Class I riffles and Class II waters (rivers are graded from Class 1 waters, which by definition require no skill level and no maneuvering, up to the most dangerous rapids, Class VI). Autumn was joined on the family outing by her two oldest children, her mother, three of her siblings, her best friend, and work colleagues of her mother. On the day of the trip, the guides arrived late and were in a rush to get on the river. The outfitter and guides provided little to no instruction to those in inflatable kayaks, who were mainly children. There was a break for lunch, during which the outfitter and guides never mentioned or warned the kayakers that there was a “strainer” (a submerged log with branches reaching up towards the surface) around a bend in the river, despite the fact that the guides had gone past the strainer the day before. The first kayaker lost sight of the lead raft as it went around the bend. To avoid the strainer, the kayaker would have to have known to keep left and to paddle hard to avoid being pulled by the current into the strainer. The first kayaker, then the second, and then the third were temporarily caught by the strainer. The fourth kayaker, Autumn’s best friend’s son, was pushed hard against the strainer and was crying out for help. The next raft to come around the bend had an inexperienced guide. In the raft with him was Autumn, her best friend, and her three siblings. When they attempted to rescue the boy, the raft flipped and Autumn’s life vest was caught on a branch of the strainer and she was held under water. Autumn’s sister cut her free from the branch with a knife from one of the other rafting clients. Autumn’s brother swam her to shore. Her sister started CPR, then a more experienced guide took over before local EMTs arrived. Autumn was declared brain dead at the hospital and life support was removed.
During litigation, the rafting company provided a copy of an internet registration form originating from one of Autumn’s email accounts. Their position was that Autumn had electronically signed a broad, all-encompassing assumption of risk or release agreement, freeing them from liability. The registration form referenced a release that was to be visible in a box at the rafting company headquarters, but the box was empty. It was our position that even if the rafting company could prove Autumn had seen the release and had signed the form containing the release, the release was overbroad and inconsistent with Oregon law. We hired an independent appellate lawyer who reviewed the case law and submitted an opinion letter as part of the negotiations. The rafting company and the guides all appeared to be judgment proof. The case eventually settled for slightly below the rafting company’s insurance policy limits.