Wrongful-death suit filed in WWU student's death

Shari Booth drowned in 2008 when she failed to surface during an advanced dive near Deception Pass.

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WALLA WALLA — Family members of a Walla Walla University student who died three years ago during a scuba diving class in Rosario Bay have filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the institution.

Shari Booth, 19, a freshman biology major, was on a three-day trip to the university’s Rosario Beach Marine Laboratory near Anacortes, Wash., on May 19, 2008, when she failed to surface during an advanced dive near Deception Pass.

After two days of searching and with weather conditions deteriorating, search crews and divers called off the recovery efforts. Her body never was found.

Now, her mother, Marsha Booth of Brush Prairie, Wash., and sisters Sarah Reilly of Australia and California resident Sharla Carlson are alleging the university and other defendants "were grossly negligent and demonstrated reckless disregard" for Shari Booth’s safety.

The lawsuit was filed Thursday in Walla Walla County Superior Court. The plaintiffs, represented by Seattle attorney James P. Jacobsen, are seeking an unspecified amount of money.

Responding to a request to the university for comment Friday, Vice President and Public Information Officer Jodi Wagner said in an email, "Walla Walla University was and remains very saddened by the loss of Shari Booth."

Wagner added, "We have not seen the complaint, and are unable to comment on specific allegations."

Also listed as defendants in the suit are Booth’s instructor, Gene Bruns, who lives in Walla Walla, his Kennewick companies — UnderSea Adventures Inc. and College Divers — and the National Association of Underwater Instructors.

Bruns declined to comment when contacted Saturday by the Union-Bulletin.

At the time of Booth’s disappearance, the advanced class was taking one of about six dives required as part of their program. Booth had been diving with a partner. The two were with a larger group, which had traveled to the Marine Laboratory, a base for the dives in Rosario Bay.

The lawsuit alleges that training and materials used in the open-water course "were manifestly deficient in their creation, promulgation and application."

The plaintiffs also claim that Booth wasn’t properly instructed in use of the equipment, wasn’t adequately prepared for the dives and wasn’t appropriately screened.

In addition, the dive location "is a patently inappropriate site for novice student divers" because of its strong current and frigid temperatures, according to the complaint.

And, the lawsuit says, Bruns inappropriately pulled Booth’s partner from the water prematurely and failed to enter the water himself to save Booth, despite seeing her bubble trail leaving the area.

Booth drowned "after being abandoned underwater," according to the suit.

University news and information coordinator Becky St. Clair said Friday the university doesn’t currently contract with Bruns or his companies, nor is Bruns an employee of the university.

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