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NOLS death brings lawsuit from mother of 20-year-old killed on Himalayan trip

Nov 1, 2013 - By Eric Blom, Staff Writer

The mother of a Minnesota man who died while on a National Outdoor Leadership expedition is suing the organization.

Elizabeth Brenner, of Minnetonka, Minn., accuses NOLS of negligence, gross negligence and wanton and willful negligence.

She seeks $75,000 in the lawsuit in a federal court in Minnesota.

"We're really disappointed the mother is pursuing legal action," NOLS spokesman Bruce Palmer said. "Normally we're really open with our communication, but we don't comment on pending litigation."

Brenner's son Thomas Plotkin, who was 20 years old at the time, slipped on a wet rock while backpacking in the Himalaya Mountains and plunged 300 feet down a ravine towards the Gori Ganga River on Sept. 22, 2011, according to court documents.

Plotkin's body was never found, and authorities presumed he drowned.

Plotkin was on a Semester in India trip on a break from his studies at the University of Iowa, where he played club lacrosse and ice-hockey. His group of 15

students and four NOLS staff were hiking on a 6-foot wide path in the Milam Valley on a rainy afternoon when he twisted his foot, fell to the ground and was pulled over the edge of the ravine by his 60-pound backpack.

The lawsuit claims NOLS staff were not careful enough on the hike and should have contacted local authorities for help more quickly. NOLS's internal investigation concluded Plotkin's death was a tragic accident, the document stated.

An investigation by the Indian government concluded, "It does not seem proper to have trekked that path during the evening and under a light drizzle," the lawsuit stated.

Indian authorities also alleged NOLS group leaders should have immediately sought assistance from villagers and the Indo-Tibetan Border Police stationed about a mile from the site of the fall.

Since NOLS opened in 1965, 12 people have died on its courses. The school serves about 3,000 students a year.

"The health and the well being of our students and staff are of the highest priority at NOLS," the school's website stated. "However, it is important to recognize that there is, and always will be, a certain degree of risk in the very nature of a NOLS course."

NOLS students must also sign a form acknowledging the school's courses entail inherent, serious risks.

Lawsuit documents lay out the events leading up to Plotkin's fall.

On Aug. 23, 2011, Plotkin and his group arrived in New Delhi, India and went to the town of Ranikhet for a five-day first aid course.

On Sept. 3, 2011, they started a 30-day hiking trip through river valleys in the Himalayas split into three groups of five students. On Sept. 21, they resupplied with food, and Plotkin's pack would have weighed at least 60 pounds afterward, documents stated.

The plaintiffs allege Plotkin and other students were not receiving enough food and were losing weight and particularly muscle.

Plotkin was rotated into the group leader position of his hiking group, and they left camp at 9 a.m. Their destination was the town of Raragari about 5.6 miles away.

At 1 p.m., they reached Raragari, but there were sheep in the camping area. Student leaders decided to continue hiking to the town of Lilam, which they thought was 3 miles away. The students had misread their maps, though, and Lilam was 5.6 miles distant.

Rain began to fall as they set off on what would be their longest hike so far on the trip. By about 5 p.m., it started getting dark and the NOLS instructors were 30-40 minutes behind the student groups.

At about 5:15 p.m., Plotkin was descending a 6-foot-wide, rocky trail when his foot slipped inward on a wet rock. Briefly, he landed in a seated position on the edge of the trail, but his backpack pulled him backwards off the edge, headfirst.

Two students went to get the instructors and then went to Lilam to retrieve climbing equipment. The staff members rappelled down the slope but did not have enough rope to reach the bottom.

Just after 6 p.m., they called the NOLS India office in Ranikhet, which then contacted NOLS's Pacific Northwest office. NOLS India sent two employees with climbing ropes and rescue gear, but they did not arrive at the scene until 8 a.m. the next morning.

In that first hour, the course instructors did not contact local officials in Lilam, less than one mile away, or Munsiyari, about 7 miles distant, nor did they reach out to local residents or the Indo-Tibetan Border Police, who had a post 1 mile from the location of the fall.

The NOLS India office contacted the Munsiyari Disaster Management Office at 8 p.m. The next day, Sept. 23, local search teams and residents began looking for Plotkin, and NOLS employees found his headlamp and jacket feet from the river.

A local search team found his backpack in some rocks .6 mile downriver on Sept. 27. The search for Plotkin continued until Oct. 6, but his body was never found.

NOLS could not be reached for comment by press time.

A week after Plotkin's fall, Plotkin's group followed a local tradition to return to the site of the tragedy to place brass bells in remembrance of their course mate.

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