Almost a year to the day after Avishek Sengupta’s death at the 2013 Mid-Atlantic Tough Mudder, his mother filed suit against the company, which grossed approximately $100 million last year. The suit comes after five months of mediation failed to produce a settlement between the Sengupta estate and the co-defendants, which include Tough Mudder and Airsquid Ventures, whose subsidiary was responsible for aquatic safety at the event.
The wrongful death complaint, filed by the Boston-area firm Gilbert and Renton on Friday in the Circuit Court of Marshall County, West Virginia, charges both Tough Mudder and Airsquid Ventures with gross negligence for their conduct at the “Walk the Plank” obstacle on the day Sengupta drowned. “Walk the Plank” requires participants to plunge from a 15-foot platform into a deep pool of frigid, muddy water, then swim forty feet to a cargo net, where they exit the pool.
According the complaint, Tough Mudder was directly responsible for overcrowding at “Walk the Plank” on the day Sengupta drowned that made it impossible for safety personnel to effectively monitor the pool. But the complaint goes a step further, alleging that Tough Mudder intentionally removed certain safety features in order to improve crowd flow.
“Prior to the Tough Mudder Mid-Atlantic event on April 20,” the complaint reads, “Tough Mudder had been the subject of complaints on social media concerning long waiting times at many of its obstacles... In response to complaints of long wait times at Walk-the-Plank, Tough Mudder took steps to decrease wait times and increase the flow of participants through the Obstacle... Its desire to speed participants through Walk-the-Plank caused Tough Mudder to abandon (or fail to adopt in the first place) critical safety measures.”
Those measures include more and better-trained safety staff, lanes to divide participants and prevent them from landing on each other, and cautionary signage, all of which, the lawyers contend, had been implemented at earlier events.
The American Red Cross Lifeguarding Manual has clear protocols for how to respond to overcrowding at aquatic attractions. Essentially, there are two options: ramping up the number of lifeguards, or shutting the attraction down. Faced with obvious overcrowding at “Walk the Plank” on the day Sengupta drowned, safety personnel did neither.
“Even after witnessing twenty or more rescues in the hours before Avi Sengupta arrived at the Obstacle,” the complaint reads, “none of the Defendants took any measures to reduce the extreme drowning risks.”
Amphibious Medics—the subsidiary of Airsquid Ventures contracted to manage aquatic safety at “Walk the Plank” on the day Sengupta drowned—comes under fire for staffing the pool with lifeguards who were unable to assist in the search for Sengupta’s body because they wore lifejackets that prevented them from diving. The same lifeguards also challenged Sengupta’s teammates when they pleaded that he was missing underwater, wasting precious moments and clearly violating industry-standard lifeguarding protocol, which demands that any credible report of a drowning trigger an immediate and organized search.
The complaint also reveals, for the first time, that the scuba diver hired by Amphibious Medics to man “Walk the Plank” on the day Sengupta drowned had expired rescue diver credentials at the time of the incident. Travis Pittman’s tragically lethargic response to the report of a missing person enraged participants around the pool and was thoroughly documented on video.
Pittman is a co-defendant in the suit, along with Peacemaker National Training Center, where the event was held, and General Mills, whose “Wheaties” brand sponsored the “Walk the Plank” obstacle.
Now that the legal fight over Sengupta’s death is out of the closed-door mediation process, a court decision in the case could have important public policy ramifications, especially with regard to liability waivers—what Tough Mudder calls its “Death Waiver.” The Senguptas’ lawyers contend that such waivers are unenforceable because they are obtained by “fraud and misrepresentation” and “without full disclosure” as to the safety of the event, and that they are “one-sided and overly harsh,” among other claims.
Tough Mudder declined to comment for this story.