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From left, Bill Conner, daughter Abbey Conner and son Austin Conner stand together in a family photo.

WHITEWATER

The family of Abbey Conner, a 20-year-old UW-Whitewater student, is suing the Mexican resort where she drowned in January 2017, claiming the resort was negligent in serving tainted alcohol.

Abbey’s family filed the lawsuit Wednesday in Florida, where she ultimately died. It names Hotel Iberostar Paraiso del Mar and Visit Us, the Florida-based website operator for Iberostar that the suit says failed to offer any warnings about such potential threats.

The plaintiffs in the wrongful death suit include Virginia McGowan, Abbey’s mother; Bill Conner, Abbey’s dad; and John McGowan, her stepfather, who joined Abbey’s mother and brother, Austin, on the vacation in Mexico almost two years ago.

The civil suit seeks damages under two Florida laws—the Florida Wrongful Death Act and the Florida Deceptive and Unfair Trade Practices Act—as well as Wisconsin’s Deceptive Trade Practices Act.

“This action arises from the tragic, senseless and entirely avoidable death of a young woman, Abbey Conner,” the lawsuit states.

Abbey, originally of Pewaukee, was a first-semester junior studying public relations at UW-W after transferring from Waukesha County Technical College, the university has said.

What happened?

Using iberostar.com, John in November 2016 booked a seven-night, all-inclusive stay at the resort for the family, the lawsuit states. The family was to stay there from Jan. 7 to 14, 2017.

According to the lawsuit:

The family arrived at Hotel Iberostar Paraiso del Mar in the afternoon, and Abbey and Austin told John and Virginia—known as Ginny—they planned to change into swimsuits and go to the pool. John and Ginny joined the two siblings at the pool before leaving and asking to meet them later for dinner.

Hotel staff served Abbey and Austin drinks at the pool’s swim-up bar.

Then, as the hotel has claimed, a guest told an employee that two people were drowning in a shallow part of the pool. Abbey was floating face-down and unconscious, and Austin was kicking and splashing.

John and Ginny waited in the lobby until 8:15 p.m., when Ginny asked the front desk to call her kids’ room. Two staff members in a golf cart then took John and Ginny to their rooms and told them about the pool incident.

At about 9:30 p.m., John and Ginny reached the hospital, where Abbey was unconscious and on a respirator and Austin was sedated, although he had regained consciousness.

Before Abbey could be transferred to the intensive care unit, John and Ginny had to pay hospital bills and a deposit for the kids’ transportation to a hospital in Cancun, Mexico—charges that exceeded $16,000. The lawsuit mentions no one named in the suit offered to help pay those expenses.

To John and Ginny’s horror, a neurologist said Abbey had “very little brain activity.”

The closest U.S. facility willing to accept Abbey was Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where she arrived Jan. 10, 2017. A doctor said she would not survive without the ventilator.

Abbey died two days later with Bill, Ginny and John by her side.

The family’s investigator has been denied access to the resort.

Months later, “the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Consular Affairs for Mexico issued a travel warning relating to tainted or substandard alcohol for American citizens traveling to Mexico,” the lawsuit states, attributing the information to Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporting.

The lawsuit states the defendants knew over the last few years that alcohol at the hotel was “tainted, substandard, poisonous, unfit for human consumption, and/or otherwise failed to meet bare minimum standards for food and beverage safety.”

The lawsuit claims the defendants failed to protect Abbey by ignoring foreseeable problems with alcohol and not training staff to respond to such situations.

Media coverage

Abbey’s death led to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation of dozens of cases in which tourists who visited Mexican resorts blacked out after drinking small to moderate amounts of alcohol. Some incidents involved assault, burglary or rape.

The lawsuit cites multiple Journal Sentinel stories about government responses to news of the vast amounts of tainted alcohol. Mexican authorities found some alcohol contained dangerous levels of methanol, which is toxic.

Bill also received national media attention when he rode his bike from his home near Madison to the Florida hospital where Abbey was treated before she died.

Bill’s 2,000-mile bike trip raised money and awareness for organ donations. During the trip, Bill took a Father’s Day break in Louisiana, where he met Loumonth Jack Jr.—the man who received Abbey’s heart.

“As far as I’m concerned, Abbey is alive,” Bill told The Gazette in July 2017. “That’s her heart inside of him pumpin’.”

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