UW-Madison has paid $850,000 to the family of a windsurfer killed in 2017 in a collision with a UW Lake Safety lifesaving boat, settling a wrongful death lawsuit the family filed earlier this year against the UW Lifesaving Station and four of its employees.
The family of Yu Chen, who was killed on May 31, 2017, when he was struck on Lake Mendota, said UW-Madison did the right thing by settling the lawsuit, according to a statement released Wednesday by the family’s attorney, Jay Urban.
“This terrible tragedy should not have happened if the boaters paid attention that day, as they should have,” Gang Chen, the family’s representative, said in the statement. “We decided to settle with the state so that Yu’s elderly mom does not need to be tortured by having to go through lengthy litigation. We have given an opportunity to the state to take measures to improve safety on the lake.”
Born in China, Yu Chen, 43, was a senior medical physicist for a local biomedical firm. He came to Madison in 2007. His mother and other members of his family still live in China.
Chen died from chop wounds to his head, neck, torso and extremities when he was struck by the boat’s propeller after the collision.
UW does not admit fault under the settlement, Urban said. The case was formally dismissed this week after the settlement was reached.
In a statement Wednesday, UW-Madison spokesman John Lucas said Chen’s death was a tragedy. He added, “We disagree with some of the characterizations of the incident in the statement released by Attorney Urban.”
“However, we believe reaching a resolution was in everyone’s interest and will allow those involved to move forward,” Lucas said.
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In June 2018, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne announced there would be no criminal charges. His review states that the driver of the boat said he did not see Chen until just before the collision, then put the boat immediately into reverse to stop the engines.
The driver said he had to shift and keep his head up to see his surroundings because of the design and arrangement of the boat, Ozanne’s review stated.
He added, however, that it’s not clear how three crew members on the boat failed to notice Chen and his sail, but that the position of the seats could have obstructed their view. Ozanne said 3-foot waves and noise from 15- to 25-mph winds also could have kept Chen from hearing the boat’s engine.
Urban said, however, that the boat was traveling at a high speed for the conditions. He added that such collisions should never happen on the water.
Urban said Chen, who was a windsurfing instructor for the Hoofer Sailing Club at the UW Memorial Union, was certifying a windsurfing student and was headed back toward the Hoofer club when the collision occurred. The rescue boat was headed back to its Gilman Street headquarters from a call near Governor’s Island.
The lawsuit was settled quickly once it was filed, Urban said, which he attributes in part to an animated reconstruction created by his firm as an exhibit for trial. Using video footage taken from atop a tower at Helen C. White Library and 3-D imaging of the boat taken after the crash, the reconstruction attempts to show the crash from different angles, including the view ahead from inside the boat just before it hit Chen.
“We cobbled together pieces of evidence,” Urban said. “At least it was persuasive enough that UW took notice.”
The lawsuit was filed in May, nearly a year after Ozanne had decided against criminal charges and after UW-Madison Police released a review of the incident. Not long after the lawsuit was filed, Urban said, the state Attorney General’s Office, which represents most state agencies in court, contacted Urban to see whether he would be interested in talking about a settlement.
Since the crash, the UW Lake Safety program has been moved from the university’s Environmental Health and Safety Department into the UW-Madison Police Department and renamed UWPD Lake Rescue & Safety. The move was made after a police review of the program found it had little to no documentation of staff training or written policies for staff to follow.