(Lander, Wyo.) – The Lander-based nonprofit National Outdoor Leadership School is being sued for negligence in the 2011 death of a student on a course in India.
The wrongful death lawsuit was filed on Oct. 22 in a federal Minnesota court, where Thomas Plotkin was from. Plotkin fell from a height of nearly 300 feet into the Gori Ganga River while hiking. Plotkin’s mother, Elizabeth Brenner is seeking no less than $75,000 in damages from NOLS, to include her costs, disbursements and interests.
Originally, NOLS had until Oct. 29 to respond to the lawsuit, but the deadline was extended on Monday to Nov. 19.
Brenner charges NOLS with negligence, gross negligence, and willful and wanton negligence. In a 19 page complaint, the circumstances surrounding Plotkin’s death and how NOLS employee’s alleged actions contributed to his death are outlined in detail.
“At approximately 5:15 p.m. (on Sept. 22, 2011), Plotkin was descending the path when his left foot slipped inward on a wet rock,” states the court documents. “He briefly landed in a seated position near the edge of the trail. The weight of his backpack pulled him over backwards. Because he had landed so close to the edge of the trail, there wasn’t any level ground to fall onto, and Plotkin fell backwards and head-first off the trail and down the steep incline. The other students yelled his name but there was no response.”
The official search for Plotkin was concluded on Oct. 6, 2011, by Indian officials. His body was never found, but some artifacts of his clothing were located at the base of the nearly 300 foot cliff where he fell, within feet of the Gori Ganga River.
According to the lawsuit, a NOLS internal investigation “concluded that Plotkin’s death was nothing more than a tragic accident.” The lawsuit states the Indian government concluded that NOLS’s group leaders should have contacted authorities much sooner than they did.
Throughout the day leading up to his death, students leaders were reportedly leading their own groups, with the instructors approving of travel plans. The documents also state that due to students misreading maps the day’s hike was longer than expected, causing extra fatigue. Packs were also reportedly full due to a recent re-ration of food. The lawsuit states Plotkin’s pack weighed more than 60 pounds, as he was also carrying equipment for a couple female tent-mates.
The lawsuit alleges that NOLS failed to properly instruct the students in map reading, failed to provide adequate nutrition, failed to supervise participants safely, failed to accompany students within reasonable proximity, failed to avoid unnecessary risk, failed to ensure the immediate availability of rescue equipment and failed to promptly request search assistance from local authorities.
The lawsuit states that one of the instructors on the course had hiked the trail before, knew of its perils and the perils that could be caused by hiking it in the evening during rain.
“In spite of this known peril, however, the NOLS instructors failed to exercise ordinary care and allowed the students to proceed on the perilous journey, thereby constituting willful and wanton negligence,” states the court documents.