Hearing Held In Suit Over Collapse Of Spencer Dam

O’Neill, Neb. – A district judge in O’Neill heard arguments Monday on whether a wrongful death suit brought by the family of a man killed when the Spencer Dam on the Niobrara River collapsed last year can go forward. Judge Mark Kozisek gave no indication when he would issue a ruling.

The family of the late Kenny Angel is suing dam owner Nebraska Public Power District and the Nebraska Dept of Natural Resources, which regulates dams, for $5-million dollars with the defendants arguing they’re protected from such suits by state law.

Angel has been missing since a massive ice flow burst through the dam last March, destroying his home and the Straw Bale Saloon complex, which was owned by his family.

The family issued a statement yesterday saying the suit isn’t “simply about money damages or compensation,” but also to force action on the “hundreds of ticking time bomb dams and structures across Nebraska and America” that have been found to be substandard and possibly failing.

The lawsuit says NPPD and the state were negligent because neither had taken action to strengthen the dam or provide other protections downstream after a 2018 inspection listed the Spencer Dam in the “significant” hazard category.

Monday’s hearing didn’t deal with the claims in the suit, only whether Nebraska law and previous court rulings grant immunity from such suits to NPPD as well as the state – especially when an event occurs during an emergency.

NPPD and the state also asked Judge Kozisek to require the Angel family to be more detailed in their claims while the family argued the case should be allowed to proceed as is to allow them to use the pretrial discovery process to find out what the defendants did after the 2018 report.

To date, little information has been released publicly about the cause of the dam failure and the history of the maintenance of the structure. The family’s attorney said that type of information will determine a number of things, including whether the immunity claims are valid.

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