Iditarod mushers are known for missing digits.
Frostbite-prone Jim Lanier, the 71-year-old who won a spoonful of gold as first musher to the midpoint in this year's race, is 17 for 20 when it comes to fingers and toes. Four-time winner Martin Buser accidentally amputated part of a finger in a woodworking mishap days before the 2005 race. He finished 13th.
When Mitch Seavey nearly lost his index finger last year in Ophir, however, his Iditarod was over. In a lawsuit in U.S. District Court, the former champion now says the blame lies with the Oregon company that made the knife he sliced his finger with, and Sportsman's Warehouse, which sold it to him.
The Seward musher was forced to "discontinue what could have been a winning run of the race," the lawsuit says. He is demanding at least $100,000 in lost wages and other damages.
"He was doing pretty well. He may well have won the Iditarod," said Seavey's attorney, Bill Ingaldson of Anchorage. "But our claim for that year was that he wasn't able to finish."
For the past two years, the Iditarod winner has claimed a $50,400 check and a new Dodge pickup truck. Championships also lure lucrative sponsors and create heroes of lead dogs, making their offspring more valuable.
More serious than the missed opportunity at a championship is the lasting damage to Seavey's right index finger, Ingaldson said. The accident came as Seavey used the gut hook on the back of the blade to try to cut a zip tie securing a bale of straw, the lawsuit says.
Mushers use the bales to make beds in the snow for their dogs. Slicing open the blue plastic is a checkpoint ritual, repeated countless times over an Iditarod career.
This time, Seavey nearly severed his finger at the joint, the lawsuit says.
An attorney for Sportsman's Warehouse says Seavey has produced no evidence he lost money.
"Mr. Seavey bears the burden of proving all of his damages, including his claim that but for cutting his finger, he would have won the (2011) Iditarod," Fairbanks attorney John Tiemessen wrote in an email. "As Mr. Seavey probably knows better than most, there is a wide gulf between hoping you will win, even thinking you might win, and actually winning the race."
Kershaw Knife Co. also has denied the claims.
Seavey nearly lost his finger at the joint, the lawsuit claims. Doctors reattached the digit, but it now points at an awkward angle and "always catches on things," Ingaldson said.
"Some people with that problem sometimes have (the finger) amputated," Ingaldson said. "That's something that he's got think about."
Seavey, a 52-year-old member of one of Alaska's most successful mushing families, filed the lawsuit in state civil court in December. It was later moved to federal court and accuses the knife company of negligence. Both the blade-maker and retailer are accused of breach of warranty and misrepresentation for selling a defective product and failing to warn of potential injuries.
Big Lake musher Jake Berkowitz was serving as an Ophir race judge and talking to Seavey at the time of the accident, Berkowitz said. He saw Seavey whip his hand back as he cut into straw bales.
"You could definitely tell he was in immediate pain," Berkowitz said.
ESSENTIAL TOOL ON THE TRAIL
The lawsuit centers on the most essential of tools in a dog musher's sled. A knife offers security, said Two Rivers musher Aliy Zirkle, who carries at least three blades on the trail, including one clipped to her parka.
If a dog's leg becomes wrapped in a line or the team tangles itself around a tree, the musher must quickly cut the animals loose, she said. At checkpoints, racers use blades to slash open food bags or pry ice from frozen sled runners.
Berkowitz, the musher who saw Seavey nearly slice off his finger, was a top contender in this year's race until he cut his own hand while separating frozen fish late in the race.
Iditarod officials said the wound was too severe for him to continue.
"I don't know if I was tired or maybe it was just one of those things where it went right through (the fish) and then went right into my hand," Berkowitz said.
The cut severed an artery between his thumb and forefinger, the musher said. The hand inflated with blood as he was flown to an Anchorage hospital for treatment, he said.
Such severe knife injuries are uncommon on the race trail.
Four-time champion Lance Mackey of Fairbanks attributes the injuries to musher carelessness. "Forty years of Iditarod and you only hear of one or two people ever hurting themselves (with knives) enough to stop the race."
Seavey's lawyer, Bill Ingaldson, said the knife the musher cut himself with suffers a serious design flaw: The lever or button used to release the locking blade is near the middle of the handle and can be depressed when the gut hook is used as intended. That frees the blade to close on the user's fingers, he said.
Kershaw Knives is owned by KAI USA Ltd. of Japan. In addition to the Kershaw brand, the company also sells Shun Cutlery blades and Zero Tolerance "tactical" knives.
A spokesman for the company did not respond to a request for comment Thursday. KAI USA denied Seavey's allegations of negligence in a Jan. 24 court filing, writing that the damages he suffered were caused by "his own negligence or assumption of risk or by the negligence of others."
Seavey also could not be reached for comment Thursday. His son, Danny Seavey, said the musher was attending a family celebration.
Mitch Seavey won the 2004 Iditarod. He placed seventh this year, his 10th top-10 finish, and was joined in the race trail by his father, 74-year-old Dan Seavey, and his son Dallas, 25.
Dallas Seavey won the race, becoming the youngest champion in Iditarod history.
Dan Seavey, the mushing family patriarch, said on the race trail this year that Mitch had been on pace for a victory in 2011 before the hand injury sent him home.
"I have not a doubt in my mind that he and (eventual champion) John Baker would have been foot-racing it to Nome," Dan Seavey said.
Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By KYLE HOPKINS
Anchorage Daily News