$2 million settles drowning lawsuit

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Allison Schaefers looked at a portrait

RICHARD WALKER / RWALKER@STARBULLETIN.COM
Allison Schaefers looked at a portrait of her daughter, Charlotte, at a news conference to discuss a $2 million settlement with their attorney, Rick Fried, in his office.

Charlotte Schaefers, 5, died last year on military housing

By Rosemarie Bernardo

rbernardo@starbulletin.com

The family of a 5-year-old girl who drowned in a drainage pond at a Pearl City military housing complex last year has reached a $2 million settlement with the federal government and other defendants.

Attorney Rick Fried, who represents the family of Charlotte Paige Schaefers, said yesterday that the settlement was reached between the Schaefers family and the federal government, Hunt Building Co. Ltd. and Hunt Building Corp., Gile Buck & Associates, Briggs Engineering Inc. and Danilo D. Lopez. Fried said he believes the settlement amount is a record in Hawaii for the wrongful death of a child.

On Feb. 28, 2004, Charlotte was playing with her friends near her home in the Pearl City Peninsula naval housing complex when she jumped into a drainage pond to save a friend who fell in. The drainage pond was filled with 3 to 4 feet of murky water from heavy rain. Charlotte drowned while family and neighbors frantically searched for her.

"Because a drainage pipe was 89 percent clogged, the detention pond flooded virtually overnight to form a lake about half of a football field long," said the girl's mother, Allison Schaefers, a Star-Bulletin business reporter.

A permanent 6-foot vinyl fence and signs were installed around the drainage pond soon after the drowning. Fried noted that the clogged drainage has also been corrected.

Area residents had complained to military officials about the drainage problem. E-mails acknowledging the problem were sent between the military and its contractor at least two years before the drowning.

In a March 2003 e-mail to Navy housing officials and an official of Hunt Building Co., which built the drainage pond, a Navy housing supervisor joked about the situation but also strongly recommended that a barrier be installed around the drainage pond.

The e-mail subject line referred to the "Pearl City Peninsula Great Lakes" and the supervisor listed a number of "money-making business opportunities" for the pond, including rental boat rides, SCUBA classes and water skiing.

"Now that you have had a few laughs, here comes the serious part," the supervisor continued, listing areas where the water was as deep as 6 feet.

"Bottom line is that a child that gets away from a parent or person watching could get into the water drain areas. This could end up in a very bad situation that we neither want or need," he wrote.

He recommended a fence be built around the area. It wasn't, Fried said, until after Charlotte drowned.

"I think it's egregious," Allison said of the e-mails.

Attorney April Luria, who represents Hunt Building Co. Ltd. and Hunt Building Corp., would not comment on the settlement.

"The settlement counts for nothing compared to losing my daughter," said Scott Schaefers, a Navy chief petty officer based at Pearl Harbor. "I'd much rather have her back than anything else."

He said photos of their daughter remind him of the past and the wonderful times they shared with Charlotte.

"It makes it really tough that those times, for all the future events, birthdays, Christmases, weddings, proms, whatever may be, we don't get to enjoy (that) with our special little girl," he said.

"It really, really tears you apart inside," he said as tears filled his eyes.

Allison said: "The settlement doesn't mean a whole lot. She's worth everything to us. There's not a dollar amount that could ever replace her."

The couple also have a 9-year-old son, Joshua.

Charlotte's mother said much needs to be done to prevent a similar incident from occurring.

She said she will be approaching state lawmakers to consider implementing laws that will require fencing and signs at detention and retention ponds. Allison said she will also push for laws on the federal level.

"It's a devastating loss to lose a child and I don't want to see anybody else ever go through this again," Allison said.

Lt. Barbara Mertz, spokes-woman for Commander Navy Region Hawaii, which oversees installation management, said: "Today's settlement was announced that found the U.S. government liable for $850,000 of the $2 million settlement for the Schaefers. The Navy deeply regrets this tragedy and we fully understand that no amount of money will ever replace the loss of Charlotte Schaefers.

"Our deepest sympathies are still with the Schaefers family and since this tragedy, Navy Region Hawaii has worked hard to ensure similar incidents will never happen again by erecting permanent fences around the retention pond and conducting weekly regularly scheduled inspections," Mertz said.

The settlement sets aside $1,000 each year for the next 50 years toward a scholarship fund under Charlotte Schaefers' name for students attending Our Lady of Good Counsel. Charlotte attended the private elementary school in Pearl City.