An international diving association insists it should not be held liable for the death of a Missoula woman who attended dive training sanctioned by the association.

The Professional Association of Diving Instructors Worldwide Corporation is denying vicarious responsibility for the November 2020 death of Linnea Mills, according to a document filed April 4 in Missoula County District Court.

Mills drowned while participating in cold-water dive training with instructors working for Gull Dive of Missoula. Gull Dive advertises itself as a member of PADI’s Retailer and Resort Association, and its instructors are supposed to adhere to PADI training standards. But a lawsuit filed in May 2021 by Mill’s parents and other dive trainees asserts that Gull Dive instructors weren’t fully qualified and failed to follow many PADI safety requirements.

Debbie Snow was a newly certified PADI instructor who wasn’t certified to teach diving at altitude or diving with a dry suit, both of which present dangers. She failed to check Mills out on the myriad of equipment Mills was to train in. Snow didn’t check Mills’ equipment prior to the fateful dive and then allowed Mills to use an inappropriate and dangerous combination of gear.

During the dive, Snow failed to monitor Mills’ situation until catastrophe resulted. Those breaches of PADI and other safety requirements led to Mill’s death in the depths of Lake MacDonald in Glacier National Park where Gull Dive didn’t have a permit to dive, according to Mills’ complaint.

Mills’ lawsuit charges PADI with vicarious liability because PADI didn’t police Gull Dive even after a previous lawsuit was filed against Gull Dive for a diving death in 2019.

Linnea Mills pictured during her graduation. (Courtesy Photo)
Linnea Mills pictured during her graduation. (Courtesy Photo)

Mills’ attorney David Concannon argues that PADI prides itself in its programs and merchandise but doesn’t hold its members accountable. PADI gives its Retail members incentives to sell more certifications and employ more instructors, which can lead some to cut corners and take chances. If shops break the rules, PADI doesn’t inform the public if a shop is expelled from the organization. In this case, Gull Dive didn’t report the 2019 incident to PADI and kept using the PADI name and displaying the PADI sign, according to the lawsuit.

In the Mills’ lawsuit, Concannon cited part of PADI’s advertising that says “PADI instructors are trained and held to diving’s highest standards, backed up by a solid, proactive quality management system,” and “All PADI programs, from entry-level through scuba instructor training, fall under strict educational standards monitored for worldwide consistency and quality.”

In her April 4 response for PADI, Helena attorney Cherche Prezeau argues that Gull Dive and its instructors are not agents of or employed by PADI, so PADI has no responsibility. Prezeau said that PADI issues disclaimers on various documents, from student documents to its website, saying member shops are not agents of PADI. As evidence, Prezeau has submitted agreement forms that Mills initialed when signing up for training that include such disclaimers.

“As a federal district court in Hawaii determined when evaluating a similar vicarious liability claim against PADI (in 2015): ‘PADI is simply a professional organization and certifying entity, with numerous independently operating members,’” Prezeau wrote. “Here too, the undisputed evidence shows that Gull Dive Defendants are not PADI’s actual agents and that PADI’s acts would not have led Linnea Mills, or anyone else, to reasonably believe Gull Dive Defendants were agents of PADI.”

In a Jan. 26 deposition, Charles A. Hornsby, PADI Senior Vice President of Legal Affairs, said a prospective PADI member dive center or instructor agrees to follow PADI training standards and to be subjected to PADI’s quality assurance review “if there is any issue regarding the member’s adherence to PADI training standards.”

If a quality assurance review finds standards weren’t met, “PADI’s only recourse is to either counsel, retain, suspend or expel the member after the fact,” Hornsby said.

In June, the U.S. Attorney for the State of Montana declined to press criminal charges against Snow, saying while the instructor was “likely at fault to some extent for Mills’ death, we cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she was criminally culpable.”

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com.