An Atlanta man has sued a Ocoee River rafting company, asking for a jury trial and $4.5 million after he broke his leg in five places during a rafting trip.
Spencer Hayes said in his federal lawsuit that on Aug. 18, 2010, while rafting with Ocoee Rafting Co., the group's guide asked passengers in the raft it they wanted to go through the next set of Class IV rapids while spinning, also known as "tornadoing" the raft.
Hayes and a friend, both inexperienced rafters, said they did not want to do the spin move, but the guide spun the raft anyway, according to the complaint.
Hayes, seated in the front right of the raft, hit the water first and was pulled into the rapids. The current pulled him under, dragged him downriver and smashed his body against the rocks, fracturing his leg in five places.
About 250 yards downstream, Hayes swam to another raft, whose occupants got to him to shore and called a park ranger, the complaint says.
Local attorney Andy Pippenger, who is representing Ocoee Rafting, declined to comment when reached by phone Friday and referred questions to the answer-to-complaint paperwork, which denies any negligence on the part of the rafting company. The document states that Hayes, once he fell off the raft, failed to follow safety instructions - given to all rafters before getting on the river - and that led to his injuries.
All rafters must sign waiver forms before getting on the river, saying they absolve the rafting company of blame in case of accidents.
Hayes' Memphis-based attorney, Jennifer Bermel, said in a phone interview Friday that, in many cases, Tennessee law protects rafting companies from simple negligence. But she and her client believe the rafting company was grossly negligent by disregarding Hayes' objections to the dangerous maneuver.
Bermel said she tried to communicate with Ocoee Rafting and Angela Arp, who is named in the lawsuit, prior to filing the suit, but the company did not respond to her requests.
"I'm not surprised that they didn't respond; they're accustomed to not being responsive," she said. "In this industry the waivers will have some significance."
Blake McPherson is a manager and 17-year rafting veteran at Cherokee Rafting, which launches trips on the Ocoee River. McPherson has no involvement in the case and learned of the details when contacted by the Chattanooga Times Free Press.
He said it is common for rafting guides to spin rafts in certain manageable Class IV sections of the Ocoee River, but only with the agreement of all raft occupants.
McPherson said Cherokee Rafting tailors trips to the client by offering slower-paced excursions for families and more adventurous trips on client request.