COLUMBIA — The parents of a 20-year-old woman who died while trying to rescue a man from floodwater in 2008 are bringing a wrongful death suit against The Links apartment complex, a construction contractor and the city of Columbia.
Michelle Runkle died while trying to rescue then-23-year-old Christopher Crocker, whose vehicle was stuck on a Clark Lane detour during a heavy rainstorm on Sept. 14, 2008. Crocker survived.
According to a court petition filed by Ben and Patricia Runkle, the defendants are alleged to have been negligent in failing to close Clark Lane during construction of a box culvert at the point where the road crosses Hominy Branch. The petition also alleges that The Links "created hazardous conditions" and "negligently failed to use ordinary care" in one or more of the following ways:
- The elevation of the Clark Lane detour was lower than Clark Lane itself, causing flood water to pass over the detour instead of under Clark Lane.
- Floodwater was allowed to flow over the detour at a "depth and speed dangerous to public travel."
- There were no barricades, barriers or other traffic control devices at the site of Crocker's mishap.
- There was a visible left-turn arrow sign at the east entrance of the detour, directing drivers onto the detour while it was flooded.
- There were no warning signs or messages posted around the box culvert construction area or the detour.
- Any visible signs around the detour were confusing to those approaching.
- There was no low-water crossing gauge near the detour.
- There was no guardrail along the detour's southern edge to prevent people or vehicles from being swept off by floodwater.
- Lighting was inadequate.
City staff did not discontinue through traffic on Clark Lane while the box culvert was being built. The project was originally scheduled to be done by February 2008 but had not been finished by the time of the accident.
Early on Sept. 14, 2008, Crocker was driving west on Clark Lane, turned left onto the Clark Lane detour and drove into the floodwater. Crocker attempted to back out of the water but was unable to do so. He said in a previous Missourian story that he saw the water flowing over the road but felt it would be safe to drive through it.
Around that time, Michelle Runkle, who was a tenant at The Links, and Devan Arends were traveling east on Clark Lane when they saw Crocker. After they got out of their car, Arends dialed 911, and Runkle waded into the water toward Crocker.
Runkle, Crocker and Crocker's vehicle eventually were swept away. Crocker was able to climb through a window and cling to a submerged golf path bridge until emergency responders rescued him.
Runkle's body was found on property belonging to The Links around 5:15 p.m. the same day.
Columbia attorney Mallory Mayse is representing the Runkles in their lawsuit. "Michelle Runkle lost her life while coming to the rescue of a complete stranger," Mayse said in an email to the Missourian. "She is a hero, and I hope she is remembered that way."
The lawsuit names The Links at Columbia LP; The Links at Columbia Management Company LLC; The Links at Columbia Golf and Country Club LLC; Lindsey Management Co. Inc.; and Lindsey Construction Co. Inc. as defendants, all of which have denied the plaintiff's claims. The Runkles also named the city, arguing officials knew of the possible dangerous conditions in time to "remedy, barricade, remove, guard or warn of such conditions" and failed to do so.
At the time of the incident, the Missourian reported that city officials said barricades had been set up but someone removed them.
In their response to the plaintiffs' petition, The Links argued that Michelle Runkle "acted recklessly and rashly" and "willingly, knowingly, and voluntarily assumed the risk of walking into floodwaters."
Lindsey Construction Co. also said Runkle was "negligent and careless" because she knew or could have known the detour was flooded and unsafe.
In its response, the city states that Runkle was "unreasonable, rash or reckless" or that her actions were unreasonable because "the risk of attempted rescue was so great."
Mayse said she expects the discovery phase of the case will be complete within a year. A jury trial would then be scheduled.