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Musher Mitch Seavey settles with Oregon knife maker over 2011 Iditarod accident

Dermot Cole

FAIRBANKS -- Two-time Iditarod champion Mitch Seavey and an Oregon knife company have cut a deal on the eve of a federal civil trial over whether a defective design or Seavey's negligence led to the severe finger injury that forced the champion musher out of the 2011 Iditarod.

Details of the settlement, revealed Wednesday in a two-sentence notice filed in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, have not been announced but the parties said a formal stipulation is expected within two weeks. The dispute, which had been set for a jury trial starting Monday, centers on one of the 46,000 Northside Hunter folding knives sold by the Kershaw Knife Co., which Seavey purchased from a display case at a Sportsman's Warehouse outlet.

The lawsuit alleges the design of the Northside Hunter was defective. Seavey asked for damages of more than $80,000 for medical expenses and lost prize money from the 2011 Iditarod.

The company fought back by saying that the knife, which sold for $15 to $20, was safe and that Seavey nearly cut off his right index finger only because he was negligent and misused the blade. The company said there have been "zero reported injuries" due to the knife, with the exception of Seavey.

dispute over proper use of knife

In a phone interview, Seavey, winner of the race in 2004 and 2013, when he became the oldest champion at age 53, declined comment. Attorneys for Seavey and the Kershaw Knife Co. did not return phone calls.

Seavey filed the lawsuit two years ago, alleging that the KAI Northside Hunter folding knife was defective because it closed on his finger while he was using the outside "gut hook" of the knife to slice a zip tie at the remote Ophir checkpoint, about 350 miles from the Willow race start, during the 2011 Iditarod. Seavey said he pulled up on the knife to cut a zip tie and open a plastic bag containing a bale of hay.

The company said the accident occurred because he cut the zip tie with the knife pointed upward at a 45-degree angle while pulling in the direction the knife folds "with his thumb on the release mechanism," an action he displayed during a YouTube video interview with the Anchorage Daily News.

The company said that if a gut hook is used to cut zip ties, it should be pulled straight out from the tie and not at an angle. It also said that Seavey could have used the sharp blade of the knife simply to cut the plastic bag containing the hay, arguing that the 2011 Iditarod video showed Seavey's son, Dallas Seavey, doing just that with a bale of hay.

Mitch Seavey had surgery on his finger in 2011 but the company said he ignored instructions to wear a splint or tape and fractured his finger in 2012 while trying to start a snowmachine. He had the finger amputated in June 2012. The fact that he won the Iditarod the following year showed "the minor impact that loss of the digit had on dog mushing," the company said.

Seavey bought the knife in about 2008 but he said no instructions or warnings came with it; he purchased the last one in a Sportsman's Warehouse display case. It didn't matter that he didn't receive backup paperwork, the manufacturer said.

"Seavey admitted he doesn't read the packaging materials and that unless there was a warning that specifically warned him against using the gut hook to cut plastic ties, he would not have heeded the warning," the company said in its trial brief.

Seavey's attorney argued that the instructions that would have come with the knife "do not warn against the use and danger that caused Seavey's accident and, therefore, those warnings would not have altered Seavey's (or any reasonable user's) conduct."

No field test

Seavey argued that placing a gut hook on the outside of the knife was a defective design because of the location of the release at the top of a curve on the handle.

"Kershaw did not conduct any testing of the knife to determine how consumers would use the knife," Seavey said in his trial brief. "The only functional testing of the knife Kershaw performed involved taking some of the knives out of a batch of knives and tapping the back of the knife against a table to see if the blade lock would release. Kershaw did not field test the knife."

Kershaw said it subjected knives to a "whack test," which means to "whack it hard while in the locked position to see if it will release and to determine if it has acceptable play in the blade." Seavey's court filing said he intended to show the jury how easy it was to accidentally release the lock and that it was "inherently unsafe" to put a gut hook on the outside of a folding knife.

He asked for medical expenses of $29,359 and lost prize money of $53,873, which he said was the average of his winnings over a 10-year period. Seavey was among the leaders of the 2011 Iditarod when he dropped out.

"He had very good dogs and there was a very good chance that he would have won the race," his trial brief said. "Because winning the race is not a certainty, Seavey intends to ask the jury to award the average of his race winnings as described above."

In his deposition, Seavey said he was seeking "some fair compensation for not being able to finish the Iditarod for 2011," a race eventually won by John Baker of Kotzebue in record time.

"When you say 'fair compensation,' I'm not sure what you mean by that," the lawyer for the company said during a deposition on Nov. 29, 2012, in Anchorage.

"Millions and millions of dollars," Seavey responded, apparently joking. He went on to say he was seeking tens of thousands of dollars -- or what he might have collected had he won the race or finished near the top.

An expert hired by the manufacturer produced a report saying the knife was safe if used in the proper manner. He said the evidence indicates that the accident occurred because Seavey "deliberately or accidentally" pushed the release button. In addition, engineer John Myers wrote that Seavey had not used the knife much but he had lost his main knife by the time he reached Ophir. In addition, the lawyer said Seavey was tired and in a hurry when he misused the gut hook.

"Mr. Seavey's injury was caused by a combination of accidental circumstances," Myers said. The expert hired by Seavey, J.P. Purswell of Colorado, took issue with the design, saying with the release on the back of the knife it "can be activated simply by gripping the knife in a certain way."

Reach Dermot Cole at dermot@alaskadispatch.com.


By DERMOT COLE
dermot@alaskadispatch.com