Val Hollingsworth is looking for answers and to prevent further tragedies at Roseland Wake Park

Val Hollingsworth of Dover, Massachusetts is looking for answers — something he claims he did not get from Canandaigua officials following the 2016 death of his 22-year-old son after a fall at Roseland Wake Park.

He wants changes made so no other parents have to go through what he and his wife Carol have been dealing with since losing their son, who suffered a traumatic brain injury at the park Sept. 22, 2016 and died two days later at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester.

Hollingsworth is now seeking to get those answers in federal court where his attorney, Stephen Schwarz, filed a complaint Friday, demanding a jury trial.

The suit is against Roseland Wake Park and Rixen US in Florida and Rixen Cableways of Germany, whom Schwarz said are manufacturers of the wakeboarding system at the park,

“I think Mr. Hollingsworth's frustration, beyond the horror of losing a child, is they seem to not have made any changes,” said Schwarz, managing partner of the Rochester law firm Faraci Lange. “They had released statements saying his son died of some pre-existing condition. That was their official statement to the public.”

According to the complaint, Valentine Benjamin “Ben” Hollingsworth and a friend, Jacob James, both students at Rochester Institute of Technology, were taking part in a “college night” program at the park, which has a full-size cable wakeboarding system.

The park's website says the overhead cable system will pull up to nine riders at a time around the lake, enabling riders to hit various ramps and rails spaced out throughout the park.

Ben Hollingsworth and James did at least one loop round the 2,100-foot cable system without incident with Ben going first, before his more experienced friend.

Hollingsworth began another loop, the complaint says, with James approximately two positions behind him at around 4:15 p.m. As Hollingsworth approached a “funbox” — a ramp jump — along the north side of the loop, his wakeboard hit a protrusion on the right side of the obstacle, launching him head first into the ramp.

Schwarz estimates James found his friend floating face down in the water about 20 seconds later and — screaming all the while for help — tried unsuccessfully to push him up onto the ramp.

Christopher Bills, a park employee, the complaint says, came out of a building next to the wakeboarding pond “after crucial minutes passed” and helped James get Hollingsworth back to the dock where another employee helped get him out of the water and began to administer CPR until emergency medical technicians arrived and took over.

Schwarz estimates Ben Hollingsworth was face down in the water for somewhere between a minute and a half to 2 minutes. He claims there were no lifeguards on duty at the time.

“Somebody should have been watching this,” Schwarz said. “This is an occurrence that was very predictable in the sense that someone could get injured while wakeboarding and not be able to swim. This is something that should have been foreseen and they should have had procedures to go and get these people when it happens and they clearly didn't.”

He said Ben Hollingsworth died from a combination of traumatic brain injury and hypoxia due to drowning.

“I have not been served with anything yet,” said Dan Fuller, the park's general manager. “Since it is intended to be in litigation, I cannot comment at this time.”

Mike Olson, a sales representative with Rixen US in Orlando, Florida, referred questions to Kai Fusser, who did not respond to a request for comment.

Schwarz said the defendants will be served, noting the one in Germany may challenge whether the United States has jurisdiction.

The complaint alleges the park should have foreseen someone using the wakeboard facility could hit their head and become unconscious, and that the park had a duty to provide immediate rescue to prevent drowning.

Val Hollingsworth claims the park failed to have appropriate water safety procedures in place and a lifeguard on duty; and that Bills, who is not a party to the suit, was negligent in leaving his position as operator of the system and not continuously observing users.

The suit further alleges the ramp design was defective and Rixen should have known the protruding rail coming off the ramp presented a danger to any rider; or should have warned purchasers not to place the jump so the cable would permit riders to approach from the right side and contact the protruding rail.

“My wife and I have been working diligently for 15 months to get the local authorities in Canandaigua and Roseland to do just the most basic investigation and follow-up and, to this point, nothing has been done,” he said. “We felt that filing suit was the best way to correct something and, as parents of a dead child, we'd like to know that we did our part to correct this.”

Canandaigua City Police Chief Stephen Hedworth acknowledged meeting with Hollingsworth and said, as a parent himself of sons, he cannot imagine putting himself in Hollingsworth's shoes, but found no evidence to support criminal charges.

“It was a terrible accident,” Hedworth said. “Obviously, our hearts go out to the family. We did our investigation. We didn't find anything that rose to the level of any type of criminal charges or any type of criminal negligence. Now, it's up to the civil litigation. Let it work itself out on the civil side.”

Hollingsworth has since been out to the park and said he saw the same pattern of inattention that led to his son's death, with people not watching the riders. He provided a notice of violation and order to comply, issued Sept. 1 by the New York State Department of Labor, noting department staff conducted operational inspections on June 19, Aug. 30 and 31 and Sept. 1 that showed a lack of supervision of all riders during operation.

“Should an injury or fatality occur in an incident involving an amusement device under the Department of Labor’s jurisdiction, the business is required to inform the Department immediately,” emailed Cullen Burnell, acting communications director. “An investigation is then opened to determine compliance with the standards contained in the Code Rule (https://labor.ny.gov/workerprotection/safetyhealth/sh45.shtm). If violations are found, penalties are issued.”

He said the Roseland case resulted in violations, and copies of inspection reports and final notice could be obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request, which the Daily Messenger has filed.

The park was issued two safety violations in late September 2016, alleging Roseland failed to notify officials of a serious injury at the park until two days after Ben Hollingsworth died, and continued normal operations after the incident.

Hollingsworth said his son's doctor told him he probably could have survived the head injury or hypoxia from being in the water, but that he could not survive the combination of the two.

“The concern my wife and I have is No. 1, there was a fatal accident and the city of Canandaigua has not done anything to thoroughly and properly understand what happened,” he said. “Nor has Roseland. Secondly, Roseland has a responsibility to keep an eye on riders and be in a position to be of assistance if someone falls and is knocked out. If you look at video of kids doing these jumps, it would not be hard to expect that people fall sometimes and have a risk of a head injury.”

The suit seeks unspecified monetary damages for wrongful death, pre-impact terror, pain and suffering; as well as punitive damages, alleging gross negligence and reckless disregard for the safety of park patrons and failure to provide appropriate safety procedures, lifeguards and supervision.

In order to be filed in federal court, by law, the matter in controversy in a civil action must exceed $75,000.

Hollingsworth said whatever money might result will be donated to the National Technical Institute for the Deaf at RIT, where his son was a student; and The Learning Center for the Deaf in Framingham, Massachusetts, which Ben attended from infancy through elementary school.

Hollingsworth said his son indicated on his license a desire to donate his organs, which benefited four different people. He praised the Finger Lakes Donor Recovery Network for its work and for assisting his family.