The July Fourth weekend accident at a Lake Erie Island winery is still reverberating among victims and their families nearly two weeks later. One person died and dozens were injured when a terrace filled with holiday-revelers at the winery collapsed. But the victims were not the only ones affected by the incident. The winery's owner is now facing a possible class-action lawsuit that could mount into the millions of dollars. And residents of the small island are trying to put the events of the past few weeks behind them. 90.3's Karen Schaefer has this report from Middle Bass Island.
Karen Schaefer- For over a century, summer visitors have been lining up to take the ferry to Middle Bass Island for a visit to the Lonz Winery.
Built in 1866 by a German wine maker, the massive limestone building is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and has attracted countless dignitaries, including five U.S. Presidents. But this summer, the winery was forced to close its doors, following the collapse of a terrace that sent holiday-makers tumbling fifteen feet into an old wine cellar, killing one and sending 76 others to the hospital. Weeks after the incident, visitors still stop to gawk at the ruins and remember happier days.
It's not likely the winery will ever open again. Cleveland-based Paramount Distillers, which acquired the property two decades ago, is now faced with a liability lawsuit from five of the people injured in the accident. Sandusky attorney Dennis Murray says he's considering a class-action suit that would stipulate a minimum of $25,000 in liability claims for each of the 77 victims.
Dennis Murray- Once that part of the case is completed, the court would look to determine what the individual plaintiffs' damages are. Those damages and what we're asking the jury or juries to award will obviously vary greatly according to the severity of the injuries.
KS- That suit could quickly mount into the millions of dollars. First attorneys must show that employees knew - or should have known - that the structure was unsafe. If that's proven, Ottawa County Prosecutor Mark Mulligan says he would then file criminal negligence charges against Paramount Distillers for reckless homicide and reckless assault. Investigators have so far determined that a rusted steel support beam gave way while about a hundred weekend visitors were drinking wine and dancing on the terrace. While an inspection might have uncovered the weakness, under Ohio law, inspections of existing structures are not mandatory.
Paramount officials and winery employees refuse to talk to the media, but islanders are not so reticent. Native Eddie Sheller, who runs the Middle Bass General Store, says it never occurred to him that the terrace might be unstable.
Eddie Sheller- I don't believe so. I wouldn't be afraid to go up there, I've never been scared to go up there. It was just one of those freak accidents, I believe.
KS- Freak accident or not, the winery was scheduled to close permanently this October, when ownership of the property passes to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Earlier this year, the state announced plans to buy the winery and 123-acres of wetland, grasslands, harbor, and marina for $6.75 million. Park spokesman Jim Lynch says the goal is to create a new state park that would bring boaters and summer vacationers to the island.
Jim Lynch- We'll focus our acquisition on family-oriented activities. We will close the winery as it's been known today. In fact, at this point in time, we don't know our plans yet on how we would use the facility.
KS- The state may not have to make that decision. Paramount Distillers has 30 days to provide an engineer's report on the winery, then decide whether to renovate the building or tear it down. While many visitors are saddened by the loss of a favorite gathering place, islanders like Janet Sterns are pleased the winery is closing.
Janet Sterns- We hate all the people coming over, the riff-raff coming over. They get drunk, they get obscene. So it was just kind of a thorn, having the winery, I think. To have the state buy it and preserve it, that's what we wanted.
KS- Preserving the island's cultural and natural resources is a goal for many of the island's year-round and summer residents. Recently islanders chipped in to help purchase a marshy area threatened by development. It's now the Kuehnle Wildlife Area, operated by the Ohio Division of Wildlife. But other resort, cottage, and condominium developments have sprung up on Middle Bass in just the last five years. They're attributed by most islanders to the spill-over of increasing tourism on nearby Put-in-Bay and Kelleys Island. Like many long-time summer residents, Lois Paul believes the winery's loss is the island's gain.
Lois Paul- We were afraid that it was going to be built up with condos and all the lakefront property. Lonz owns a lot of property over here. And to have it made into a park and have a place for people to come over and camp, I think it's nice. I really do.
KS- It may be months before investigations into the accident at the Lonz Winery are completed - and years before lawsuits for the victims are settled. But on Middle Bass Island, the loss of an historic landmark could signal the beginning of a new chapter of island tourism. On Middle Bass Island, Karen Schaefer, 90.3 WCPN, 90.3 FM.