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Michigan mom calls for lifeguards, sues city of South Haven over daughter's drowning

Lisa and Emily MacDonald
Emily MacDonald and Kory Ernster
Posted at 8:54 PM, Jan 06, 2024
and last updated 2024-01-06 22:40:03-05

SOUTH HAVEN, Mich. — The families of two people who drowned at South Haven's South Beach are suing the city, claiming negligence led to their deaths.

Michigan mom calls for lifeguards, sues city of South Haven over daughter's drowning

On August 8, 2022, Emily MacDonald (19) and Kory Ernster (22) swam under a yellow flag at South Beach. Due to dangerous waves and a current, they drowned. Bystanders pulled the couple from the water and attempted CPR.

"They loved the water," said Emily's mother, Lisa MacDonald, in a previous interview with FOX 17. "The world lost two very incredible people that day."

Emily MacDonald and Kory Ernster
Emily MacDonald and Kory Ernster

Now named as a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the City of South Haven, MacDonald's lawyers allege the defendants "were or should have been aware of the dangerous conditions" and subsequently failed to change the flags on the beach from yellow to red.

Filed in Van Buren County Circuit Court in November and transferred to federal court on Tuesday, the brief notes the National Weather Service warned of a "high swim risk" that day with waves and currents "dangerous near piers."

"The lake is very unpredictable and doesn't discriminate on who it's going to take," MacDonald said in a Saturday interview with FOX 17. "Every day I live is another day further away from the last day I had with my daughter."

Lisa and Emily MacDonald
Lisa and Emily MacDonald

Following the deaths of Emily and Kory, MacDonald founded the Facebook group Save LIVES...Hire LIFEGUARDS, advocating for beach safety measures in beach towns like South Haven.

"Tourist towns should feel they have a responsibility to take care of the people that flock to their towns," MacDonald said. "Human life over tourist dollars."

Through the Facebook group, MacDonald has also met with public officials from South Haven, hoping to hold them accountable to lifeguard-related campaign promises.

"It is a very complex issue that involves citizens, experts, city council and staff and the mayor," MacDonald said.

Waves in South Haven

The drowning-related lawsuit isn't South Haven's first. In 2013, the city settled with an Illinois family after the 2009 drowning of a 45-year-old man, agreeing to pay $400,000 to the family and install safety measures on the beach, including 911 call boxes.

In the recent lawsuit, the MacDonalds and Ernsters are seeking damages in excess of $25,000 as compensation for medical, funeral and burial expenses, in addition to the physical pain their children suffered from the incident.

"The City of South Haven does not comment on pending litigation," said Mary Ann Sabo, a representative.

"If there had been lifeguards on the beach the day Emily and Kory were there, my story would have a much different ending," MacDonald said. "If I can prevent someone else from going through the hell I have been through, then I will do all I can to do just that."

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