Thursday, January 17, 2013

Cunningham Acquitted In Rafting Case

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA rafting outfitter who sent a father and daughter down the Indian River without a guide was acquitted of reckless endangerment today after a three-day trial in Hamilton County Court.

Pat Cunningham, the owner of Hudson River Rafting Company, had been indicted on two misdemeanor reckless-endangerment charges stemming from separate incidents in August 2010. One of the charges was dismissed because the witnesses did not want to testify, according to Marsha Purdue, the county’s district attorney.

In the other incident, Cunningham sent Robert Carson and his twenty-year-old daughter, Savannah, on a whitewater trip in an inflatable kayak. Since it was a two-person vessel, there was no room for a guide. The two lacked whitewater experience and capsized shortly after launching on the Indian River. They were rescued by guides employed by another outfitter.

Carson testified that he had asked if the kayak would be safe, and Cunningham replied: “You’ll be fine, and I think you’ll have a great time.” When the vessel overturned in rapids, Carson and his daughter were submerged. “My only concern was my daughter’s life,” he said, tearing up on the stand.

Cunningham’s attorney, Joseph Brennan of Glens Falls, contended that Carson was aware of the risks when he embarked on the trip. “Robert Carson considers himself a high-energy individual. He was looking for excitement; he was looking for thrills,” Brennan told the jury in his opening statement.

Purdue said she was disappointed with the verdict but does not regret bringing the case to trial. “If I had to do it over again, I would do it because I’m not going to walk away from difficult issues,” she said.

Cunningham still faces two counts of reckless endangerment in Indian Lake Town Court, both arising from incidents last year.  He also is fighting a lawsuit filed by the state attorney general’s office that seeks to shut down his rafting business.

The state filed the suit last fall after a woman fell out of a raft in the Indian River and drowned. The guide, Rory Fay, was employed by Hudson River Rafting. He also fell out of the raft but managed to get to shore. Fay later admitted he was drunk and pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide. He is awaiting sentencing.

The Hamilton County Express has more details on Cunningham’s trial.

Photo by Phil Brown: Pat Cunningham (right) and his attorney, Joseph Brennan, enter the Hamilton County Courthouse.


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Phil Brown is the former Editor of Adirondack Explorer, the regional bimonthly with a focus on outdoor recreation and environmental issues, the same topics he writes about here at Adirondack Almanack. Phil is also an energetic outdoorsman whose job and personal interests often find him hiking, canoeing, rock climbing, trail running, and backcountry skiing. He is the author of Adirondack Paddling: 60 Great Flatwater Adventures, which he co-published with the Adirondack Mountain Club, and the editor of Bob Marshall in the Adirondacks, an anthology of Marshall’s writings.Visit Lost Pond Press for more information.

2 Responses

  1. Bill Quinlivan says:

    I don’t know Mr. Cunningham, but I believe that when you run a business such as his, you really have the responsibility to assure that you are limiting the risks to the extent possible. In my opinion, you should not be adding any risk to the activity. Yes, people who engage in such activities should recognize the inherent risks, but I believe that they have the right to expect that the Outfitter is not adding to the risk by not acting responsibly in doing something or not doing something, the result of which is unneeded added risk. I guess Mr. Cunningham is lucky I wasn’t on the jury.

  2. Steve says:

    Based on everything I’ve read I think that Cunningham has severely damaged ethics and runs a very lousy company, but I’m doubtful that the incidents he was on trial for in this case constitute reckless endangerment. Perhaps the prosecutor offered a rationale during the trial that would change my mind, but the stretch of river the dismissed charge was based on is easier than many rivers where inexperienced people can rent a raft from an outfitter and then head out without any further supervision. While more challenging than that section, the Indian and the gorge in August are still no more difficult than other rivers where outfitters send out thousands of unguided customers with few problems. Experienced guides can certainly reduce the risk, but Cunningham didn’t increase the risk by sending people without a guide. At least in the case that was tried, as long as he gave the people honest information and didn’t talk them out of a guide that they had requested, I think it’s up to the customers to evaluate the risk and make a decision.

    Of course it’s also up to the customer to make a wise decision on which of several outfitters deserve their money.