Stephanie Dukes, et al. v. Downtown Fort Worth, Inc. et al.

This case arises out of the drowning deaths of Myron Dukes, Christopher Dukes, Lauren Dukes and Juanitrice Deadmon.  The drowning occurred in the Fort Worth Water Gardens. The Water Gardens is a city owned attraction that features various water pools and fountains. It is adjacent to the Fort Worth Convention Center, and open to the public without charge.

Our Defense of our client, Downtown Fort Worth Inc., was based on a history of the water gardens and the control retained by other parties.

The Gardens were the pet project of Ruth Carter Stevenson in the late 1960s.  Her original intent was to create “a beautiful place” in the southern end of downtown Fort Worth. Ms. Stevenson proposed her idea to the City. The City agreed to the concept, and designated the area for construction of a park.  Ms. Stevenson retained noted Architect Philip Johnson to design the park. After at least two design concepts were presented, the plans for what is now the Fort Worth Water Gardens were created. The city participated in the design process, and permitted (via the inspections department) construction of the park.

One of the features of the Water Gardens is the “Active Water Pit.” Its features included water falls and cascading sheets of water which descend into a collection pit which is approximately 40 feet below street level. The Active Water Pit features stepped surfaces which lead in a circular manner descending from street level to the edge of the active pit. As you are descending, water is flows around the stepped surfaces. This structure was designed, according to Philip Johnson, to create a feeling of imminent danger, or pseudo-danger, as visitors descended the steps from the top to the water pit. The stepping surfaces are made of smooth rock and do not feature any handrails or other safety devices. They are intended to be used as access to the water pit, further enhancing the feeling of danger.

In June 1974, prior to the completion of construction, and before the park was either dedicated to or accepted by the City, the Fort Worth City Attorney, Mr. Johndroe, inspected the project.  After concluding the inspection, he issued a letter to the City of Fort Worth indicating that the project contained a number of hazards, including lack of appropriate warning signs, lack of hand rails on the steps to the water pit, and lack of fencing. Mr. Johndroe then contacted the City’s Risk Manager, Bobby Holding, who also inspected the Water Gardens, and issued opinions similar to Mr. Johndroe’s.  Mr. Johndroe’s letter was forwarded to the Amon G. Carter Foundation. The Foundation provided these comments to Philip Johnson.  In response, Philip Johnson designed a safety system around the active water pit, consisting of stainless steel stanchions and stainless steel wire fencing. The designs were provided to Thomas S. Byrne, who obtained estimates to fabricate and install the safety system. The bid was forwarded to the City of Fort Worth. The City declined to install the safety system. Thereafter, on October 24, 1974, the City accepted the gift of the Water Gardens as they were constructed, and without any safety modifications.

In the gifting documents, the Amon G. Carter Foundation retained no right to control the Water Gardens. All aspects of ownership, operation and maintenance were vested in the City.

The Park continued to operate without major incident until at least 1989. At that time, concerns were raised over the Park’s state of disrepair. The City of Fort Worth retained a contractor to perform an assessment of the park, and to make recommendations for repair. The contractor made a number of recommendations in the form of a written report which was provided to the City. The City failed to implement any of the recommendations, and made no repairs to the facility.

Following the incident, the City of Fort Worth retained the engineering firm of Freese and Nichols to perform a complete examination of the active water pool. The examination has been reduced to a written report, and a copy of the videotaped press conference has also been obtained. The findings of the Freese and Nichols Report, while highly critical of the City of Fort Worth, does not find that the suction in the active water pool was so great that a person of ordinary swimming ability could not have exited the water.

After sifting through a long history and detailed investigation of all the parties involved and control issues, we were able to successfully obtain a summary judgment in favor of our client and aggressively defended and pursued the plaintiffs appeal all the way through to a complete defense verdict and opinion.