Former world champion cliff diver sues Casa Bonita after being told he’s “too old” to perform there

Samuel Hernandez years ago won the Acapulco World Cliff Diving Championships, throwing his body off the famed Mexican cliffs and into the roiling sea below in a dramatic and dangerous competition judged on height, artistry and technical difficulty.

But managers at the Casa Bonita restaurant in Lakewood refused to hire the former professional diver, who’s now 76, to jump from the restaurant’s 30-foot-tall replica Acapulco cliffs last year because they said he is too old, according to an age discrimination lawsuit Hernandez filed last week.

When he sought out the job in early 2019, one manager initially told Hernandez she’d be thrilled to have him on the team — his cliff-diving bona fides are indisputable — but later said top management at the restaurant didn’t want to hire him due to his age.

“They won’t let you for liability and safety, since we’ve had older people who can dive, but can’t work a full shift because it is too much,” the manager wrote in a text message to Hernandez that was included in the complaint.

When Hernandez followed up with another manager, Rob Hall, the next day, he told Hernandez the same thing and would not allow Hernandez to even audition, a regular part of the hiring process that requires divers to show their capabilities by diving in the restaurant, according to the complaint.

“The problem is I’ve dealt with older divers before,” Hall said, according to the lawsuit. “You are too old, and I can’t understand why you want to be employed by Casa Bonita.”

All of Casa Bonita’s 23 divers were under the age of 34 when Hernandez was seeking a job, according to the lawsuit.

Most of the divers at Casa Bonita are high school and college students, a manager told The Denver Post in 2018, although she said anyone could audition for the job. Divers in the restaurant perform somersaults, swan dives and more, leaping from an indoor waterfall into a 14-foot-deep tank.

Hernandez in 1976 and 1979 set world records for the highest cliff dives, at 156 and 158 feet, according to the complaint. He retired from professional diving in 1980 and worked for years as a dive coach, often volunteering to coach children to fulfill a pledge to his first coaches, who trained him for free so long as he promised to do so for others in the future, according to a 1995 story in the Los Angeles Times.

In 1996, he organized the first Acapulco World Cliff Diving Championships that allowed women to compete in the previously male-only competition, according to a story that year in the Washington Post.

The lawsuit is the latest blow this year to Casa Bonita, the 46-year-old restaurant known for its lackluster food and kitschy entertainment and decor. The Lakewood institution has been shuttered since the spring because of the novel coronavirus pandemic, and managers and owners have given little indication of when, if ever, it could reopen its doors.

This spring, employees reported that their paychecks bounced and a manager said Star Buffet Inc., the company that owns Casa Bonita, was seeking an emergency loan.

Call to Star Buffet President and CEO Robert Wheaton on Tuesday were not returned. Hernandez couldn’t be reached, and wasn’t immediately clear if he still lives in Colorado.

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