Lawsuit Filed in Death of Pennsylvania Woman at N.J. Shore

SEA ISLE CITY, N.J. -- The parents of a Pennsylvania woman who died shortly after attending a "Polar Bear Plunge" charity event in southern New Jersey two years ago have sued the city where it was held and the group that organized it.

Also among the 19 defendants in the federal lawsuit brought this week by Tracy Hottenstein's parents are the owners of two bars she was at on the night she died and the couple who invited her to dinner at their home that evening. Also named is the hospital where she died and the doctor who pronounced her dead, as well as the Sea Isle City Police Department and individual officers who -- the suit claims -- did not allow rescue workers to perform lifesaving treatment for hypothermia after they discovered Hottenstein had no pulse.

The Conshohocken woman's body was found in a Sea Isle City bay in February 2009. Cape May County authorities say she died accidentally from hypothermia and acute intoxication, but still don't know how or why she entered the water after a night of partying.

The suit claims the city's permissive attitude toward alcohol during the annual event led to Hottenstein's death.

"The (Sea Isle City) commissioners knew that public drunkenness and public alcohol consumption, both violations of city ordinances, occurred at Polar Bear Plunge events," the lawsuit states. "The Polar Bear Plunge is a state-created danger ... for encouraging people to expose themselves to frigid air and water, risking hypothermia."

It also claims the city failed to maintain the public docks in the area where Hottenstein was last seen.

Hottenstein did not participate in the afternoon plunge that Saturday, but stayed in the resort community that night with friends. She was last seen leaving a restaurant with a friend around 2:15 a.m. Sunday, and her body was found by a passer-by about five hours later, not far from the restaurant.

Paul Baldini, the attorney for Sea Isle City, said he could not comment on the suit because he had not yet received a copy of it.

For the second straight year, 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 she disappeared, hoping to find witnesses who might have details about the final hours of Hottenstein's life.

Lynanne B. Westcott, the Philadelphia-based lawyer representing Hottenstein's family, told The Press of Atlantic City that she realizes people will question what responsibility Hottenstein had for her own safety the night she died, but she believes "a lot of people" have culpability in her death.

"A lot of mistakes were made at many places along the line," Westcott said. "Someone could have intervened and they didn't."