Glacier diving death lawsuit settled, atty pushes for fed investigation
(Missoula Current) A lawsuit alleging negligence on the part of local diving business and a national diving association has been settled. But one of the attorneys is pushing for the federal investigation to be reopened.
On Wednesday, Lisa Mills announced on social media that her family had settled their lawsuit against Gull Dive of Missoula and the Professional Association of Diving Instructors. The lawsuit, filed in May 2021, highlighted the events and mistakes that led to the death of 18-year-old Linnea Mills as she was SCUBA diving with PADI-certified instructors in Glacier National Park’s Lake MacDonald in November 2020.
“The civil case has been settled by all parties,” Mills wrote Wednesday. “There is much to be said about the heroes of that awful day and all the days that followed, and there is a great need to celebrate their selfless acts of courage and the people that worked on our behalf to bring this to closure. These stories will be told, and told with much gratitude.”
Linnea was one of a few students who had driven with Gull Dive instructors to Lake MacDonald on a cold November afternoon to train for a number of diving situations, including diving in high altitude lakes and cold-water diving using a dry suit.
The Gull Dive instructors themselves had little experience in either situation, according to court records, and Linnea had had to rent gear from Gull Dive that turned out not to work properly. Night was coming on and Linnea didn’t have a diving light. Still, the instructors went ahead with the training without a gear check.
Distracted by other students in the water, instructor Debbie Snow failed to notice that Linnea was beginning to struggle after she lost the air within her drysuit that was needed to keep her safe and warm.
The pressure at 60 feet made breathing difficult and diving weights instructors put in her pockets kept Linnea from surfacing. She slipped from a ledge where she was balanced, and the weight pulled her down.
Linnea Mills and Scott Mills pictured during her 2020 graduation. (Courtesy photo)[/caption]
Another student, Bob Gentry, tried to help as they both sank to 85 feet, but he couldn’t lift Linnea. Meanwhile, the pressure was slowly suffocating Linnea. At 60 feet, divers normally deal with pressure two times that at the surface, but it had almost tripled at 85 feet. The drysuit added more pressure as it squeezed in on Linnea’s body, and she lost consciousness.
They were both running out of oxygen, so the Gentry surfaced for help. Court records say Snow was still at the surface, unaware of any problem. It took two rescue dives to find Linnea’s body at 127 feet.
Mills told the Missoula Current Wednesday that she wanted to acknowledge Gentry’s efforts.“We are so very grateful to Bob Gentry and all those who participated in the attempt to rescue and revive Linnea. Linnea was greatly loved, and we look forward to honoring these caring souls through The Linnea Foundation in the near future,” Mills wrote in a message.
Federal investigators looked into the dive accident because it had occurred on National Park Service property without a permit after the park had closed. But eventually, the investigators declined to take any action.
In June 2021, the U.S. Attorney for the State of Montana declined to press criminal charges against Snow, saying while she was “likely at fault to some extent for Mills’ death, we cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she was criminally culpable.”
Attorney David Concannon is challenging the process that the federal government used to build their case, calling the information he’s uncovered in the case “upsetting.”
Concannon said he’s done 15 to 20 SCUBA investigations a year for about 30 years, so he signed on to handle the part of Mills’ lawsuit that alleged PADI was vicariously responsible for Linnea’s death. But now that the civil case has been settled, he wants to take it further.
Concannon said a GNP ranger handled the first part of the investigation but was replaced after about eight days by the National Park Service Investigative Services Bureau. That’s when things started to go wrong, Concannon said.
Concannon said the investigators didn’t follow up on what the ranger had found out and didn’t consult with NPS dive safety experts to find out what they needed to know. They didn’t gather information from the students’ and instructors’ dive computers, which would have shown what each was doing at the time of the accident.
And finally, they didn’t look for evidence as to whether Snow was mentally impaired at the time, Concannon said. He compared it to a traffic fatality where investigators always test drivers for impairment.
“They didn’t do it. They should have. I did. The evidence as to whether or not she was impaired exists,” Concannon said. “So, they stopped using the protocols for investigations by the Park Service, they don’t look at critical evidence, they ignore removal of evidence, they don’t talk to eyewitnesses who were present at the scene. Instead, they give information to the Assistant U.S. Attorney to prosecute under an intentional homicide standard, which means Debbie Snow intended to kill Linnea Mills, which was never the case. But they don’t look at a negligent homicide standard.”
Concannon said he’s been telling the U.S Attorney for the State of Montana about this evidence since August but had to wait for the civil case to settle.
“She’s chagrined. But I’m not encouraged by her response,” Concannon said. “I want them to reopen the investigation and have the actual experts available to them look at the information.”
Concannon said he’s also spoken with an interested Congressman with oversight authority over the Department of the Interior. He’s also given the evidence to the Interior Department inspector general. But he’s hoping the U.S Attorney for the State of Montana will take another look.
“We’re saying, ‘Put somebody else on the case. Talk to people who understand what they’re looking at and gathered all the evidence and can tell you objectively what it means, with some sense of understanding,’” Concannon said. “I don’t know how many insults the Mills family has to endure. They lost their daughter but then the system really failed them in fundamental ways. The people involved in this failed to do their jobs.”
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Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at firstname.lastname@example.org.