Navigating suits following tragic storm

Published on June 27th, 2018

When the 2015 Dauphin Island Race was held April 25 on Mobile Bay, Alabama, a storm cut through the 18nm course with deadly results.

Three area yacht clubs — Buccaneer Yacht Club, Fairhope Yacht Club, and the Mobile Yacht Club – host the race on a rotating basis, but it was the Fairhope Yacht Club which coordinated the 57th edition, and approximately 125 boats and 475 people registered for the event.

With near hurricane force winds moving across Mobile Bay, the result was the sinking of eight boats, 40 people needing rescue, and the tragic loss of six lives. Lawrence Specker of reports on the litigation that has followed.

The first wrongful death suit stemming from the 2015 Dauphin Island Race disaster ended with a settlement earlier this month, but what that bodes for a spate of federal suits remains unclear.

In the settled case, Valentina Henry had sued Fairhope Yacht Club over the death of her father, Robert Lonnell Thomas. The office of Presiding Circuit Court Judge John Lockett confirmed that a settlement had been reached June 5 just as jury selection was about to begin.

“It’s a confidential settlement but the family was pleased,” said Rusty Comley, an attorney with the Mississippi-based firm Watkins & Eager and part of the team representing Henry. “Mr. Thomas’ four children were pleased with it.”

Attorneys for Fairhope Yacht Club were not available for comment. Such settlements typically involve no admission of fault.

Comley said the settlement in circuit court did not necessarily provide a template for proceedings in federal court: Henry’s suit touched on maritime law and Alabama’s wrongful death statute, while the others were filed after the statute of limitations had run out on state claims. Other differences also could affect the likelihood of a settlement, he said.

Four federal suits have been filed, and Senior U.S. District Judge Callie V.S. Granade has ordered that three are to be consolidated because they involve one boat, the Santana 23 Razr.

Adam Dean Clark, 17, of Mobile, died; his mother, Angelina Tew, has filed a wrongful death suit for $2 million. Jimmy Charles Brown, 71, also of Mobile, died as well; his widow, Jane Brown, has filed a wrongful death suit seeking more than $1.5 million, according to court documents. Robert Luiten and his son Lennard Luiten, of the family that owned Razr, are seeking $1 million for emotional distress and damages such as the loss of the boat.

Granade has ruled that a fourth suit should be heard separately. Kris Beall, 27, of Pineville, La., had been on a 26-foot boat named Scoundrel. His widow, Amanda Beall, has filed a $2 million wrongful death suit against the yacht club.

Comley said he expects months of motions to come. “I think we may be looking at a June 2019 trial date,” he said.

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