Modesto mother sues over son's drowning at dam

March 15, 2008 

The mother of a 13-year-old boy who drowned in the Tuolumne River last year has filed a lawsuit against several government agencies claiming their negligent care of a defunct dam contributed to her son's death.

Debra Coito is seeking unspecified damages from Ceres, Modesto, Stanislaus County, the state and a joint powers authority that manages Tuolumne River Regional Park.

Her son, Jeremy Wilson, died March 9, 2007, when he got caught in a current that carried him over Dennett Dam.

The foundation of Dennett Dam extends into the Tuolumne River upstream of the Ninth Street Bridge.

Assistant County Counsel John Doering and Modesto City Attorney Susana Alcala Wood said they had not been served with the lawsuit and declined to comment on its specifics.

"The whole thing is unfortunate and sad, but holding the city responsible is a different story," Wood said.

Coito's lawsuit, filed by an attorney, claims government employees failed "to ensure the safety of young children lawfully using the property from the hazard of being caught up in the strong current that goes directly over the breach of the dam."

Another boy died at the dam six months earlier.

Dennett Dam was built in 1933 to create a recreational lake. It washed out in 1935 and was rebuilt in 1937. The state condemned it 10 years later.

Since then, the city has moved, from time to time, to tear down the dam. It budgeted $300,000 to begin the paperwork for the dam's removal this year, but canceled the spending when the city's financial outlook worsened. The city applied for a grant that would kick off the work in November.

Bee staff writer Adam Ashton can be reached at aashton@modbee.com or 578-2366.

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