Family of Craig Lehner, Buffalo officer who drowned during dive, likely to receive $1.2 million
Exactly four years to the day since Buffalo Police Officer Craig Lehner drowned while dive training in the Niagara River, the Buffalo Common Council's Claims Committee approved a $1.2 million settlement for Lehner’s estate.
The committee voted unanimously Wednesday to approve the wrongful death settlement, which totals $1.275 million and is expected to be approved by the full Common Council next week.
“We know that nothing ever replaces a life, but I think that it is so important that we encourage not only [Lehner’s] family, but the other men and women who have given and risked their lives for the safety of so many people,” said Council President Darius Pridgen shortly before voting to approve the settlement. “And so I just wanted to make sure that his family knows that this council, we continue to grieve with them.”
Lehner, 35, was a nine-year veteran of the Buffalo Police Department and a member of its Underwater Recovery Team. He failed to resurface after his line got caught on a boulder while diving about 25 feet below the surface of the Niagara River for a training exercise on Oct. 13, 2017. His body was recovered four days later.
Lehner’s sister, Donna Wilson, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the City of Buffalo in 2018, alleging among other things that Buffalo police did not properly train her brother before he went in the water.
Prior to approving the settlement Wednesday, the Claims Committee went into executive session for about 15 minutes. Timothy Ball, the city’s corporation counsel, told council members any discussion regarding liability should be discussed behind closed doors because “it could impact other cases.”
Councilmember Rasheed Wyatt called the Lehner claim the most difficult one the council has settled in many years.
“Most times [processing claims against the city], I'm trying to cut corners and find ... but I would not do that in this particular case,” he said. “An officer lost his life and his family is going to suffer and there's no amount of money that's going to replace him.”
An investigation by the state Department of Labor found Buffalo police failed to properly train and equip Lehner. It cited the department for four federal safety violations, including failure to provide Lehner with self-rescue training and a reserve air tank.
The investigation also found Buffalo police failed to recognize the hazardous conditions of the Niagara River the day Lehner drowned. Experts say it’s normal to dive train in water that’s moving between one and four knots, but the river currents that day were eight to 12 knots.
Councilmember David Rivera, a retired Buffalo police officer, said Buffalo police’s Underwater Recovery Team now has the proper equipment and training.
“We want to make sure that anytime an officer goes into the water to rescue and recover someone, that they are well equipped and we do everything possible to prevent something like this from reoccurring,” he said. “Officers are going to go into the same waters under the same conditions, so we just want to make sure that they have all the equipment, all the training that's needed to survive and come back out safely.”
Rivera said it was coincidental that the committee approved the settlement on the four-year anniversary of Lehner's death.
"It's kind of strange," he said. "We talked about it: It's four years to the day. It wasn't planned this way."
Council members expect the full council to approve the settlement at their regular meeting on Tuesday.