The mother of a girl who drowned in the Rock River in June is asking for $500,000 in compensation from the city of Janesville.
Simone Harris filed a claim with the city, claiming the death was preventable and the city failed in its duty to protect residents from the river’s dangers.
Madison Billups, 9, died after being swept downriver from Angler’s Park near the Monterey Bridge, where she and her brother had been wading.
The claim submitted by Ronald Sklare of the Sklare Law Group states the city knew of previous drownings in the river and an incident in 2019, when a boy survived after being swept downriver from the floating pier at the ARISE Town Square in downtown Janesville.
“The dangerous current and unfettered access to the river by the residents of Janesville gives rise to a ministerial duty on the part of the Janesville City Council, Janesville Public Works and the parks’ manager to undertake control of river safety,” the claim states.
The parks manager should have placed signs warning of the danger or informed his superiors of the danger, the claim states.
The claim, dated Sept. 25, says the city also has failed to improve safety along the river since Madison died. This is not true. The city put up temporary warning signs at Angler’s Park during the summer.
The city installed permanent signs this fall at about 20 river access points, from Riverside Park downstream to the Afton boat launch, Parks Director Cullen Slapak said Thursday.
The signs warn of swift current or deep water or say children must be supervised near the water, Slapak said.
Slapak said the city also intends to install a throw-ring station in the vicinity of Angler’s Park soon.
The claim says the city reacted immediately “when a white child slipped into the river in 2019,” the claim states. Madison Billups was Black.
Harris’ attorney did not return a call seeking comment.
The city installed two throw-ring stations and buoys downstream of the floating pier where the 8-year-old boy went into the river in 2019.
“If these improvements had been made at the known access points of the river where all children play, Madison may have survived,” the claim states. “This is just one notable example of the lack of care and urgency that Janesville and its agents have for their residents.”
The claim is on the consent agenda for the Janesville City Council’s Monday night meeting. Assistant City Attorney Tim Wellnitz, after investigating and consulting with the city’s liability insurance company, recommends that the council deny the claim, according to a city memo.
“The city is not liable, and the claim should be denied,” Wellnitz wrote in the memo.
State law requires any claims against local governments to be submitted as claims before any lawsuit can be filed. Governments often reject such claims, which clears the way for lawsuits. The council could also decide to pay the claim or negotiate a settlement without going to court.
Wisconsin municipalities are legally immune from some lawsuits, but suits are allowed under a “known and compelling danger exemption,” arising from a state Supreme Court ruling, according to the claim.
The Rock River is such a known and compelling danger in Janesville, according to the claim.