The owners and employees of a local diving school and charter boat company are being accused of negligence and wrongful death in a December 2012 diving accident that killed a woman off the San Diego coast.
Staci Jackson, 26, was a Camp Pendleton Marine who loved diving in her spare time. But a deep sea adventure near Mission Beach took her life on December 1, 2012.
On that day, Jackson and four other divers were exploring the HMCS Yukon shipwreck, the site of a sunken military ship, two miles west of Mission Beach.
The ocean wreckage is a wonderland of nooks and crannies for experienced divers. However, it’s also a dangerous deep-sea playground.
Jackson went missing during the dive and failed to surface. Hours later, lifeguard officials found her body in the water, in a crevice of the Yukon shipwreck diving site.
Now, more than six months after Jackson’s death, her mother has filed a lawsuit against the diving company. She says the organizers of the dive trip share the blame for her daughter’s death.
The Jackson family’s attorney, Jim Frantz, says an ocean surge pushed Jackson into her dive partner, or into the hull of the Yukon, and knocked her unconscious. Frantz says the surf was high that day, and conditions for the dive were dangerous.
“That dive never should have taken place," says attorney Jim Frantz.
Frantz says the dive boat operator and diving instructors should have called off the dive because the surf and swells were much too big for a safe dive.
“Seven to 12 foot surf,” Frantz told NBC 7. “Extremely heavy surge. Extremely hazardous. Two other boating companies refused to go out, it was too dangerous. And this was a novice diver that they took down to the bottom."
Veteran diver Neal Matthews agrees that diving around the Yukon can be very dangerous.
The Navy-trained underwater expert helped establish the Yukon shipwreck as a destination point for diving adventures 13 years ago.
But Matthews himself told NBC 7, “I dove it twice and after the second dive, I said ‘never again’."
He's not surprised that at least three other divers never returned alive from the Yukon, and says even veteran divers can underestimate the dangers inside that rusted hull, especially in rough ocean waters.
"The surge rushes into those holes and causes all kinds of swirling and strange currents,” Matthews says. “On a bad day, you can really get slammed up against a bulk head."
A representative from Oceanside SCUBA and Swim Center, which, according to the lawsuit, organized Jackson’s diving trip, declined to comment about Frantz’s allegations and the negligence lawsuit.
Meanwhile, Ryan Wilbarger – the Captain of the dive boat “Humboldt” involved in this fatal diving accident -- insists that he and his company did absolutely nothing wrong that day.
Wilbarger says he warned Jackson and the other divers to surface immediately if the waters were unsafe.
Wilbarger says December 1, 2012, was “not a bad day” for diving, and says Jackson’s fellow Marines personally thanked him for his efforts to recover Jackson’s body.
He says the allegations in the negligence lawsuit are “absolutely asinine” and, in his words, “a complete fabrication.”
Wilbarger says the lawsuit is nothing more than a financial “shakedown” that will damage San Diego’s diving industry.