SEA ISLE CITY - Tracy Hottenstein's parents filed a federal lawsuit this week blaming the resort's Polar Bear Plunge for her 2009 death from hypothermia.
The lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Camden comes a week before 35,000 visitors are expected for this year's plunge into the Atlantic Ocean. Police and homicide investigators plan to attend the event in hopes of finding someone who can shed light on the final hours of her life.
In a scattershot 39-page lawsuit, parents Charles and Elizabeth Hottenstein of Telford, Pa., blamed 19 defendants for their daughter's wrongful death, including the city, police, medics and even her friends.
The parents said the city's permissiveness toward alcohol during the polar plunge was to blame for the accident that ultimately killed the marathon runner and pharmaceutical saleswoman from Conshohocken after she apparently fell into the bay and succumbed to the cold while intoxicated.
"The (city) commissioners knew that public drunkenness and public alcohol consumption, both violations of city ordinances, occurred at Polar Bear Plunge events," the lawsuit said.
Hottenstein did not participate in the afternoon plunge that Saturday but stayed in the resort that night with friends. She left the Ocean Drive Bar & Restaurant on the 3900 block of Landis Avenue around 2:15 a.m. Sunday. Her body was found by a passerby about five hours later a couple blocks away on the muddy banks of the bay at 42nd Place.
While some people in Sea Isle City still suspect foul play in Hottenstein's death, the lawsuit seems to accept the conclusion of the Southern Regional Medical Examiner that it was an accident. From her injuries - she had three fractured ribs - authorities speculated that Hottenstein might have fallen off a dock into the bay near 42nd Place where her body was found.
The lawsuit indicted the entire Polar Bear Plunge.
"The Polar Bear Plunge is a state-created danger ... for encouraging people to expose themselves to frigid air and water, risking hypothermia," it states.
The lawsuit also accuses 19 defendants of wrongful death, including the owners of two bars that Hottenstein patronized the night she died. It also names the Sea Isle City couple who invited Hottenstein to dinner at their 43rd Place home that evening and the man, Michael Miloscia of Sewell, N.J., who might have been the last to see Hottenstein alive that morning.
According to the lawsuit, Hottenstein decided to stay with Miloscia at the Ocean Drive Restaurant instead of accompanying her friends home when they decided to leave.
"Mr. Miloscia assured the friends that he would take care of Ms. Hottenstein and she stayed with Mr. Miloscia and continued to be served alcohol, some of which he purchased for her," the document states.
Hottenstein left the Ocean Drive Bar with Miloscia without her coat, according to the court document.
"Michael Miloscia as the 'last friend' with Ms. Hottenstein failed to ensure that she got home safely after leaving the bars in an intoxicated state," the lawsuit said.
Miloscia could not be reached for comment in Sewell.
The lawsuit alleges the city did not maintain the public docks near 42nd Place. And it named AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center and a doctor there who allegedly pronounced the time of death for Hottenstein.
The Sea Isle City Police Department and individual officers are also named as defendants for allegedly not permitting rescue workers to perform lifesaving treatment for hypothermia after they discovered Hottenstein had no pulse.
Rescuers were also blamed for allegedly not intervening to provide lifesaving treatment for hypothermia that the parents say might have revived their daughter. Instead, she lay on the banks of the bay for more than two hours while police launched their criminal investigation, the lawsuit said.
"I think a lot of people have culpability," the parents' lawyer, Lynanne B. Wescott of Philadelphia, said.
"A lot of mistakes were made at many places along the line. Someone could have intervened and they didn't," Wescott said.
Police said Hottenstein's blood-alcohol level was higher than .08, the legal limit to drive in New Jersey. The Southern Regional Medical Examiner's Office blamed her intoxication in part for her death.
But the accident raises a question about what responsibility Hottenstein had for her own safety that night. Published accounts of the lawsuit drew a strong reaction from newspaper readers both in Philadelphia and New Jersey.
"I do expect people to say that," Wescott said. "We have no control over (the comments)."
Sea Isle City Solicitor Paul Baldini said he has not seen the lawsuit. Unlike state lawsuits, federal lawsuits do not impose the same requirement of giving a municipality notice of a claim, Baldini said.
Baldini was also named as a defendant as the former registered agent for LaCosta Lounge. But Baldini said he has not served in that capacity in many years and has no legal relationship with the business now.
Organizers of this month's Polar Bear Plunge said Hottenstein's death cast a shadow over the popular event.
"It put a black eye on a continually successful event that does a lot to help the city," said Bill McGinn, a real-estate agent with Re/Max of Sea Isle City.
"It's a tragedy that she died. I feel bad for her family and obviously for her," he said. "All the people in Sea Isle - our hearts go out to that family. It's terrible."
For the second year in a row, investigators with the Sea Isle City police and the Cape May County Prosecutor's Office will attend next week's Polar Bear Plunge. They will circulate fliers featuring a photo of Hottenstein taken the day of the plunge in 2009 in a bid to find any witnesses who might help them fill in the final hours of Hottenstein's life.
Irene Jameson of Sea Isle City founded the polar plunge in 1995 as a member of the resort's Tourism Commission as a way of boosting business in the slow winter. The commission picked President's Day weekend for the plunge.
The first year about 25 people participated. Later, Jameson served as the event's Polar Bear Queen, riding a throne of ice donated by the Sea Isle Ice Co. Now more than 2,000 people take the annual ocean dip.
Jameson said Hottenstein's death has left an indelible mark on the festival.
"I think it always will," she said. "It was very upsetting."