A popular summer destination for young adults in Madison County will likely be closed to the public this summer and perhaps even permanently if the owners fail to comply with the court’s stipulations.
Judge Wendy Wexler-Horn ordered an injunction stating that the Offsets be permanently closed to the public unless and until certain conditions are met.
According to the judgment, the facts of the case are that Gary and Rebecca Henson have owned the land known as the “Offsets” since the early 1980s and since such time the Hensons have operated a commercial business charging people admission to swim in the abandoned quarry.
The court document states that over the last 30 years at least nine individuals have died as a result of swimming on the property, most of whom died while jumping or falling from the high bluffs.
On July 26, 1989, 16-year-old Mark Pogue died while swimming.
Later that summer, on Sept. 2, 1989, 19-year-old Leonard Brand died after breaking his neck jumping into the water.
On July 16, 1995, 20-year-old Ryan Graham died from injuries sustained while jumping into the water.
On July 3, 1998, 16-year-old Sylvester Austin died while swimming.
On Sept. 1, 2007, 20-year-old Michael Mattingly died from injuries sustained when he slipped from a rock bluff and fell into the water.
On the following day, Sept. 2, 2007, 27-year-old Nicholas Kruz died from injuries sustained while jumping into the water.
On July 18, 2015, 18-year-old Devron Looney died after jumping into the water.
On July 4, 2018, 19-year-old Cole Duffell died while swimming there.
And less than two weeks later, on Jul. 13, 2018, 21-year-old Safion Livingston died while swimming at the property.
According to the judgement, despite all of these deaths, the Hensons do not carry liability insurance on the Offsets and do not have the assets to satisfy any judgments against them.
According to the court document, if operations continue at the Offsets it is likely that the Hensons will face additional judgments against them in the future and the property itself is inadequate to satisfy the judgments.
Evidence presented by the state and expert witness Michael Oostman showed that conditions at the Offsets are “unreasonably dangerous” and there is at present “substantial risks of serious injuries and death to people using the property for swimming and diving.”
Oostman testified that dangers at the Offsets include a harsh impact of the water to the body after jumping from cliffs, loose terrain, a lack of institutional control over guests due to complete freedom of guests to jump into the water from anywhere around the lake.
Oostman also testified that the presence of alcohol consumption renders guests less able to appreciate the risks and less able to physically handle the stress of such an environment.
The expert also testified that warnings given to guests are insufficient in the following ways:
The warnings are not clear enough to warn guests of the dangers. The warnings are not close enough to potential dangers to effect guest behavior. The warnings are not explicit enough about the dangers. The warnings fail to adequately instruct guests as to safe means of engaging in activities, particularly in jumping off the high cliffs.
Oostman continued to testify that the defendants failed make improvements in these risks by failing to provide staff supervision of jumping, failing to provide lifeguards, failing to have a rescue plan in place, and failing to have proper safety equipment (backboards, rescue tubes and ventilation equipment).
The court document states that the defendants advertise and invite members of the public to pay a fee to jump from the high bluffs and that impacting water after falling 40 feet is dangerous and creates a risk of injury that increases the risk of drowning.
In her judgment, Judge Horn stated that signs that say “swim at your own risk” and “do not flip from high bluffs” are inadequate to warn guests of the dangers associated with the Offsets.
The court also found that the defendants have no personnel trained or certified in lifesaving or water rescue stationed on the property.
The court found that the defendants had no personnel who were solely responsible for patrolling the facility to insure guests were following rules, had the physical capacity to swim/dive safely, and were not creating unnecessary risk to themselves or other guests.
The court noted that “ring buoys” are the only equipment on site designed for water rescue, however, the court found there were no trained safety personnel to use them.
In addition, the court found that the defendants had no formal plans in place to respond to water emergencies other than calling 911 and waiting for help to arrive. However, given the time it takes for emergency personnel to reach the Offsets, there was insufficient time to respond to a struggling swimmer in order to prevent drowning, serious physical injury or death.
The court also found that guests were permitted to jump from any of the bluffs making it difficult to monitor behavior and look for signs of distress, increasing the odds that a guest may inadvertently collide with another guest while jumping and seriously injure both guests.
Judge Horn also found that the Hensons did not attempt to instruct guests on the safe methods for jumping from cliffs other than stating not to perform flips from the highest bluffs.
The court also found guests were allowed to bring limitless alcohol onto the property and that excessive alcohol consumption has in fact contributed to several deaths.
In addition, the defendants did not require the use of life jackets by guests at any time while on the property. There are also multiple sinkholes and air shafts into which guests could fall and be injured on the property.
Judge Horn stated that despite nine deaths occurring on the property by patrons using the facility as intended, the defendants had made at most minor attempts to reduce the risks of serious physical injury or death.
Based on the preceding facts of the case, Judge Horn ordered that the Offsets be "permanently closed" to the public "unless and until" every one of the following 13 conditions are met:
1) Establish an emergency response plan by a water safety expert and conduct training with staff prior to the start of each summer and at least monthly during the swimming season.
2) Jumping will only be permitted from designated jumping and diving areas.
3) Each jumping area will be staffed by a certified lifeguard.
4) Each designated jumping area will have signage warning and advising users that previous patrons have died as a result of jumping off the cliffs and have pictograph instructions on safe diving entry technique.
5) The lifeguard at each jumping area will direct patrons to the signage, instruct patrons how to jump from the heights to minimize the risk of serious physical injury or death, only permit jumping “feet first” into the water, only permit patrons to enter the water after ensuring that the entry point is clear of other swimmers.
6) An additional certified lifeguard will be stationed in the water in a boat.
7) Lifeguards will be equipped with rescue tubes equipped with lanyards equal to the depth of the water in the swimming zones.
8) Lifeguards s will be equipped with hip packs that contain gloves and masks suitable for the provision of CPR.
9) A trauma bag will be maintained on the property containing an AED in proper working order and an emergency oxygen system capable of administering oxygen to an adult or child, and a bag valve mask. The bag will be able to be promptly delivered to the scene of any emergency event in or near the water.
10) At least one backboard with head immobilization device shall be kept so that it is easily retrievable for emergency events.
11) Flotation devices that can be thrown to swimmers in distress shall be kept at each designated jump area and at least every 100 feet around the perimeter of the water of the Offsets.
12) All guests (except certified scuba divers equipped with scuba diving equipment) will be required to wear appropriately fitting, U.S. Coastguard approved life jackets when entering the water.
13) Sinkholes will be fenced off or otherwise maintained so that patrons cannot fall into them.
The Offsets Facebook page posted on Monday morning that they regretted they would not be able to open for the Memorial Day weekend due to what they called “government over reach.”
The post continued to say that the court should not be allowed to dictate a private business and that the family simply doesn’t have the resources to fight the state. The company has asked that patrons who support the opening of the Offsets to contact the Missouri Attorney General’s Office or the office of Gov. Mike Parson to express their support.
The post from the company stresses that they believe the closure is “temporary” and that they will “reopen as soon as the injunction is lifted.”
The Hensons have not responded to phone calls and Facebook messages requesting a statement to the Daily Journal regarding the injunction for inclusion in this story.