Liability issue surfaces in drowning

February 10, 1993|By Traci A. Johnson | Traci A. Johnson,Staff Writer

While rescuers worked diligently Monday night to find 15-year-old Ratsmy Keosonbath in the pond behind the Taneytown Rod and Gun Club, Georgia Krug searched for an answer to what she considered an important question.

"I want to know who is responsible for what happened to those little kids up at the pond tonight?," asked Ms. Krug, a resident addressing the City Council.

According to an Eastern Shore lawyer familiar with such incidents, neither the city nor the gun club can be held liable for the accident that killed young Keosonbath and injured her companion, Gregory Haller, also 14.

"As long as the municipality owns and operates the land as part of its governmental function and not in a proprietary manner, they [city officials] are immune from liability," said Guy Ayres, who has been the Ocean City solicitor 11 years.

"If the gun club allowed the public to use the land for some sort of recreational activity, they are immune, too," he said.

Taneytown acquired the property from the gun club last October, but the city will not take possession of the land until October 1993 as part of the settlement agreement.

The gun club, which is searching for a new site, has been letting the public use the pond for fishing, although signs around the area warn trespassers to stay off the property.

The two teen-agers had been playing around the 12-foot-deep pond with a friend, Scott Ruby, when they fell through half-inch thick ice about 50 feet from shore. The Haller boy was pulled out of the pond by the Ruby youth and Ratsmy Keosonbath's brother, but the girl was under the water for about 20 minutes.

Ratsmy Keosonbath died early yesterday at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Mr. Ayres said, "There have been numerous cases decided in the Maryland Court of Appeals about public swimming pools and ponds owned by municipalities. The courts held that the municipality is immune from any liability.

"I would have to assume Taneytown would not assume any liability in this case," he said.

The man-made pond is surrounded by "No Ice Skating" and "No Swimming" signs. Gun club members sought to drain the pond, but the Environmental Protection Agency would not permit it, club president Godfrey Miller told The Sun Monday night.

Mr. Miller also said that fencing the pond was not considered since town residents were allowed to fish there.

Taneytown City Attorney Thomas F. Stansfield said he would not comment on liability.

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