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Lawsuit over Lake Michigan drowning can proceed

WZZM-TV • Mar 8, 2016 at 12:00 PM

GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM-TV) — A federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit against a Lakeshore community that kept a beach open despite dangerous rip currents that led to the drowning death of a park visitor.

Attorneys for Hagar Township, which operates a Lake Michigan beach in Berrien County, said neither the township nor its top two elected officials should be held liable for the Aug. 28, 2011, drowning death of an Illinois man.

The estate of 45-year-old Robert Klepacki filed suit in August 2014, saying the township had an obligation to warn beach-goers of dangerous rip currents at the Hagar Park beach on the Sunday afternoon that Klepacki drowned.

The National Weather Service had issued both a small-craft advisory and a rip-current warning for the area where Klepacki went for a swim. His wife and the couple’s 3-year-old son remained on the beach when he went into the water and was pulled under by the rip currents.

Neither Klepacki nor his wife knew about the rip currents “because defendants did not notify any of its beach-goers of them,’’ the lawsuit claims. “Robert, who was a strong swimmer, was caught and pulled under water by a powerful rip current.’’

His body was recovered by the Berrien County Sheriff’s Department an hour later, about a half-mile from where he was last seen.

The lawsuit says the township knew or should have known about those warnings, but posted no red flags at the beach. The township did not have any policy or system to warn beach-goers of the dangerous water conditions that day and no lifeguard was on duty.

Hagar Park beach remained open even after the drowning, the lawsuit says.

U.S. District Judge Janet T. Neff on Friday allowed the lawsuit to proceed against the township supervisor and clerk, who are accused of gross negligence.

Neff dismissed two other counts against the township, including one alleging the beach constitutes a form of nuisance “entirely without safety precautions/protections.’’

Township lawyers argued that the supervisor and clerk are protected from litigation through governmental immunity.

But attorneys for the family argued that there were two separate warnings issued that day and the two knew or should have known how dangerous rip currents are to beach-goers — “particularly unsuspecting visitors to the beach.’’

The lawsuit accuses the township of using the beach off M-63 and Lake Michigan “as an advertising ploy to attract tourists like the decedent.’’

The lawsuit seeks at least $75,000 in damages.

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