Granger family who lost two kids in retention pond crash files lawsuit claiming negligence

Rescue crews pull out a minivan that slid into a retention pond on University Drive in Mishawaka on Tuesday. Two children died in the incident.
Rescue crews pull out a minivan that slid into a retention pond on University Drive in Mishawaka on Tuesday. Two children died in the incident.

A lawsuit stemming from a retention pond crash that killed two children in December 2019 blames the incident on negligence and poor training from the 911 dispatch center, first responders and government officials, and improper design of the pond and dispatch center software.

The crash killed 4-year-old James Kleven and 2-year-old Natalie Kleven and severely injured their mother, Brooke Kleven, and baby brother, Hendrik Kleven. A car carrying all four family members slid off the slick road on University Park Drive and went into a retention pond near a Red Roof Inn and across from Ruth’s Chris Steak House.

A report on the incident released in February 2020 by the St. Joseph County 911 dispatch center found that first responders were delayed in arriving at the scene because of actions from two dispatch center call takers.

The lawsuit, filed Monday by the Kleven family, claims those dispatchers acted with deliberate indifference and recklessness in the incident. The suit goes on to say, however, that the county's 911 dispatch center consistently failed to train call takers on new software and protocols surrounding water rescue situations.

The suit also names Motorola, which set up new software for the 911 center, the city of Mishawaka, the Clay Township Fire Department and Great Lakes Capitol and Bradly Company, which own and manage the property where the pond is located.

St. Joseph County attorney Michael Misch declined to comment, saying the county does not comment on pending litigation. Ray Schultz, executive director of the dispatch center, declined to comment.

More:Questions surround Mishawaka pond crash that killed 2 children, including dispatchers' actions

The Klevens were trapped in car in the freezing water for over 25 minutes before being pulled out by rescue divers. James and Natalie Kleven were declared dead at the hospital shortly after arriving, while Hendrik Kleven, who was 3 months old at the time of the crash, and his mother survived.

Chicago-based firm Maureen Molly Nick is representing the Kleven family, who live in Granger. Attorneys with the firm did not immediately respond to a reporter Friday.

Dispatch 'missteps'

On the afternoon of Dec. 31, 2019, Brooke Kleven was driving her children east on University Park Drive when she lost control of her car in the icy conditions and slid off the road and into a retention pond. Investigators with the St. Joseph County Fatal Crash Team have said there were no indications Brooke Kleven was speeding.

As the Kleven’s car went into the pond, dispatchers received two calls alerting them to the unfolding events.

The first call came from a bystander witnessing the crash and was answered by Jeffrey Downey, who is named as a defendant in the suit.

Downey “missed an opportunity to quickly identify the location of the pond” partly because the map software used to select the location of the call was blocked by a web browser he was looking at, a dispatch center report found. Downey also coded the call as an accident, not as a vehicle in water, which delayed the arrival of dive teams, the lawsuit and report state.

The second call came from Brooke Kleven who called 911 from inside her car while the water began to submerge the vehicle.

Jennifer Stitsworth, the dispatcher on the other end of the line, failed to follow protocols by not immediately telling Brooke Kleven how to get out of the car once she learned Kleven was trapped, the center’s report and lawsuit say.

More:Report shows 'shortcomings' in 911 center's handling of fatal Mishawaka pond crash

Additionally, Stitsworth muted herself at one point to seek help from other dispatchers, but forgot to unmute herself when she began giving directions to Kleven again.

Stitsworth was fired and Downey resigned as a result of the incident, with Downey writing in his resignation email that he could “no longer serve an organization that has grossly neglected training and mistreated employees the way that they have over the last 2 years.”

At the conclusion of the center’s report, Schultz wrote that it would be “pure speculation” to suggest the outcome would have changed had it not been for the “missteps” of the dispatchers.

Brooke Kleven suffers from sporadic paraplegia, according to the suit, while Hendrik Kleven has lost control of one of his limbs and has a speech disorder.

The suit also says the pond was not in compliance with governmental regulations governing retention ponds and names as defendants Great Lakes Capitol and Bradley Company, which own and operate City Plaza shopping center where the pond is located.

Representatives from the companies did not return messages seeking comment Friday.

The city of Mishawaka is also named in the suit for failing to inspect the pond and put up barriers after previously documented retention pond crashes.

City attorney Pat Hinkle declined to comment.

The suit does not ask for a specific monetary amount, but seeks “compensatory damages, economic losses, special losses, special damages, punitive damages and attorneys’ fees.”

Email Marek Mazurek at Follow him on Twitter: @marek_mazurek

This article originally appeared on South Bend Tribune: Pond crash lawsuit Granger Mishawaka St. Joseph County 911 dispatch