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Crime & Courts

LeMaitre Mount Marathon case settled for $20,000, but bitter feelings persist

  • Author: Craig Medred
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published October 15, 2014

The widow of Seward Mount Marathon runner Michael LeMaitre and the Seward Chamber of Commerce have settled a lawsuit over his 2012 disappearance for $20,000.

After the settlement was announced Wednesday, the chamber issued a press release claiming victory. Hours later, Peggy LeMaitre -- Michael's widow -- countered with a statement of her own, saying "the suit was never about money.''

Peggy had asked for $5 million when she went to court in July of last year, claiming the negligence of race officials played a role in Michael's disappearance on the mountain.

Son-in-law Curtis Lynn said the LeMaitre family collectively made the decision to settle the case after a Superior Court hearing at which it became clear that the case would be hard to win. Peggy alluded to that in her statement. "We have settled our case because we have no body,'' her statement said. "As we found out as the case proceeded, it is very difficult to go to trial without a body and prove the Chamber of Commerce was responsible for his death. The judge ruled against the estate for emotional distress because of state law (on this).

"Without a body you cannot claim emotional distress. Well, for any of you out there who have lost a loved one and have no idea what happened, the emotional distress does not stop."

Michael was last seen about 200 feet below Turnaround Point of Mount Marathon on July 4, 2012. Despite exhaustive searches, his body has never been found. He was officially declared dead in August 2012 after a presumptive death hearing.

Eyesight questioned

Chamber officials -- apparently suspicious that the whole disappearance had been staged -- demanded all of Peggy's financial information in pre-trial filings in an apparent search for a money trail that might lead to a still living husband. None was found.

But after the settlement, the chamber's press release highlighted the fact no body was found and that Peggy moved to have Michael declared dead shortly after the search ended.

"He was presumed dead through a court action initiated by his wife, Peggy LeMaitre, on July 17, 2012, two weeks after his disappearance,'' the statement said.

The chamber press release also suggested evidence had surfaced revealing Michael's sight was so poor he shouldn't have been in the race.

Peggy, that release said, "denied her husband had eyesight limitations or was ill prepared for the race. (But) at trial, the jury would have considered medical records which reflect Mr. LeMaitre had lost considerable vision in both eyes due to advanced glaucoma and experienced 'total obliteration of his lower field of vision.' In the years leading up to his disappearance, Mr. LeMaitre's limitation was so significant that in 2009 he filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against his employer at JBER (Joint Base Elmendorf Richardson) claiming he was being discriminated against due to his 'disability.'''

At a subsequent deposition, the statement said, Michael told EEOC investigators that "what I see as far as peripheral vision is I see everybody from the top of their head to the tip of their nose. ... It was over a month before I realized (my supervisor) had a goatee.''

What the chamber press release failed to mention, Lynn said, was that the EEOC records dated to a time when Michael was recovering from eye surgery. The surgery was successful and his vision improved.

"About Mike's vision,'' Peggy said in her statement. "Mike had a valid driver's license and on his last visit with his eye doctor, he had 20/30 vision without glasses. Mike lost peripheral vision, but all he had to do was move his head and look down. ... Mike was also recovering from glaucoma surgery during the time of the EEO(C) case."

Safety standards

The relationship between the chamber and the LeMaitres turned bitter shortly after Michael's disappearance, and it has remained that way. The family was left angry about what some family members believed were inadequate safety standards for the 49th state's oldest annual running event.

Volunteers manning the halfway turnaround in 2012 left their positions before Michael -- the last runner in the race -- reached that point. It is widely believed he eventually reached the turnaround rock, which is well short of the summit of Mount Marathon. Where he went after that remains anyone's guess.

In the two-page press release Wednesday, the chamber said the settlement freed it from any responsibility for Michael's disappearance. The second sentence of the release said everyone agrees "that although Michael LeMaitre's disappearance is indeed a tragedy; the chamber, as Mount Marathon Race organizer, is not at fault. We owe our gratitude to Laura Eakes and her team at Walker & Eakes, LLC for their remarkable representation."

The press release went on to blame Michael for what happened.

"Race volunteers spoke with Mr. LeMaitre as he was approaching the turnaround point and let him know the race was over,'' the statement said. "Numerous witnesses, including one medical doctor, would have testified at trial that Mr. LeMaitre requested no assistance, appeared to be in no distress, and wished to continue to the top of the mountain.''

The conversation occurred at a distance of about 200 feet. Lynn noted that's about two-thirds the length of a football field.

But Michael, the chamber statement said, had earlier been warned of Mount Marathon's dangers. All 2012 racers were told, "If you haven't been up the mountain, you have no business participating in this event,'' the release noted.

Michael had not been up the mountain. Despite the warning, which stopped short of blocking those who hadn't gone before, Michael signed a waiver of liability in order to participate and headed onto the mountain against the wishes of family members who counseled him not to do the race.

2 other racers injured in same race

Chamber officials clearly believe there was little more they could have done to prevent the tragedy. The LeMaitre family clearly believes race organizers hold some obligation to try to make the race as safe as possible.

"The Chamber has fought viciously and denies they have any responsibility to any racer,'' Peggy's statement said. "The fact remains that they left my husband on the mountain knowing he was there. ... The fact remains they do not or did not have any safety plan. ...

"The fact remains that the mountain was in the worse weather condition ever (in 2012). They have no race director to make a decision to call off a race due to unsafe conditions. Two people were severely hurt during the 2012 race and my husband lost his life."

One of the racers injured in 2012 has fully recovered. The other, Anchorage's Matt Kenney, continues on a long road to fully recover as he battles back from a traumatic brain injury.

But the race has gotten safer. Peggy noted there is now a time limit for racers to reach the halfway turnaround, and there is better monitoring of racers on the course. Racers are also kept off the cliffs where Kenney almost died.

"However,'' Peggy's statement said, "(Mount Marathon) is thoroughly lacking in safety standards and protocol when compared to other adventure races around the country. So they have changed some rules. So I did get what I wanted. I pray they will never abandon another racer on the mountain like they did Mike."

Settlement negotiations

Peggy still wrestles with her husband's disappearance.

"I continue to wonder what happened,'' she wrote. "Did he suffer for an extended period of time; did he try to climb to the top of Mount Marathon; was he swept out to the ocean through a water corridor by the Sea Life Center (after a fall from the ridge); did he slide under the ice and freeze to death; did he fall into a crevice; did he suffer from hypothermia; was he thinking of his family in his last minutes. We did not get to say goodbye.

"When you have a body, you know what happened and can put them to rest.''

She is not alone in wondering. Many other Alaskans wonder as well. Some continue to search.

But one chapter in the story is now closing.

Settlement negotiations between the chamber and the LeMaitres began in earnest a little more than a week ago after the judge ruled against claims for emotional distress. The same judge considered a request from the chamber to dismiss the entire case because of the lack of a body.

As the judge considered that request, "Mrs. LeMaitre decreased her demand from $5 million to $45,000,'' the chamber statement said. "The chamber's insurance company countered with an offer to resolve the matter for $20,000, which was reflective of the costs of a lengthy trial and post trial proceedings. The counter offer was accepted by Mrs. LeMaitre and her counsel.

"The decision to resolve this matter was a business decision made by the chamber's insurance company and is in no way an admission of liability. The evidence supports the conclusion that the chamber was not negligent and did not cause or contribute to Mr. LeMaitre's disappearance or presumed death in any way.''

Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com.

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