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Family Of Police Officer Who Drowned During Training Exercise Files Wrongful Death Claim

Lieutenant Craig Lehner of the Buffalo Police Department died while conducting a training exercise with the Underwater Recovery Team Unit in October 2017. Donna Wilson, Lehner’s sister, recently filed a wrongful death claim against the City of Buffalo as she continues to cope with grief. Lehner was underwater at the time of his death and his body was found several days later downstream. The allegations in the lawsuit include that Lehner endured “pre-death terror” and “conscious pain and suffering”.

State Investigation

A team of investigators cited the department for several safety failures following the incident. These included a failure to assess dangerous river conditions and violations relating to equipment requirements and proper documentation of records. The department must satisfy compliance standards within a 60-day period.

Diver Expert Insight

While submerged Lehner was connected to a tether line that became caught on a rock. Investigators believe he attempted to cut the line in efforts to free himself. Brett Galambos, a diving expert with Robson Forensic in Pennsylvania, says that Lehner should have been equipped with a “quick-release snap shackle” that would have aided him.

Needed Safety Device

Galambos stated that all public safety units should have the snap shackle equipment as standard inventory items. Local I-Team Channel 7 News reported that the unit’s equipment inventory did not include these devices and that they did not appear on their last inventory purchase list. A department source responded to the report by saying that the proper equipment was ordered.

Allegations of Negligence

A plaintiff attorney told local reporters that he does not believe that documentation exists showing that Lehner had trained in rapidly moving waters like the Niagara River conditions that day. The claim alleges that the department should have postponed the training exercise on that day based on the “dangerous” conditions. They also believe the department was in violation of established labor provisions that require employees be maintained free from known hazardous conditions.

Case Outlook

Autopsy results confirmed that Lehner had water in his lungs and had drowned. The Police Commissioner referred to the incident as a “tragic accident”. Wilson says that she is still struggling to accept the loss of her brother. A court date is upcoming in late October.

Understanding Conscious Pain & Suffering

Among the damages included in this case were those for conscious pain and suffering. Some of the case law found in various jurisdictions explaining this includes the following:

  • In Pennsylvania, conscious pain and suffering may be part of a survival action. It has been defined as what the deceased individual endured “from the time of the accident and when death occurred”.
  • In Kentucky, these damages are not applicable when the deceased was determined to have been unconscious during the time between the accident and actual death.
  • In Illinois, the amount of these types of damages is based on the length (duration) in which the deceased suffered from conscious pain and suffering.
  • Most jurisdictions that recognize these damages also will allow for compensation during this period for any medical expenses incurred or income lost during this post-accident period preceding death.

About the Author

Charles GilmanCharles Gilman
Charles Gilman

As managing partner and co-founder of Gilman & Bedigian, it is my mission to help our clients recover and get their lives back on track. I strongly believe that every person who is injured by a wrongful act deserves compensation, and I will do my utmost to bring recompense to those who need and deserve it.


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