Many personal injury lawsuits come down to a “he said/she said” conflict: Two people get into an accident and each accuses the other of causing it. But what happens when one of the parties dies as the result of the accident, and there is no way to prove or disprove the survivor’s account of what happened? A federal judge in Georgia recently dealt with just this situation when sorting out the aftermath of a tragic boating accident.
Holmes v. Parker
In July 2009, three people boarded a 23-foot motorboat and traveled to Raccoon Island, a privately owned island in Chatham County. The three people included the boat’s owner, his female partner and another male passenger. While attending a party on Raccoon Island, the owner and his partner consumed alcohol and cocaine. During their return trip the following morning, the group’s boat hit a jetty on nearby Jekyll Island.
The owner and his partner were thrown from the boat. The owner managed to return to the boat and broadcast a mayday, to which the U.S. Coast Guard responded. He then searched for his female partner. He found her lying dead, face down in the water.
The woman’s daughter, who was also the executor of her mother’s estate, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the boat’s owner, the owner of Raccoon Island, and the United States Government. The claim against the government was based on the Coast Guard’s alleged negligence in failing to properly mark the Jekyll Island jetty. In March 2013, U.S. District Judge Lisa Godbey Wood of Brunswick granted the government’s motion for summary judgment, holding the Coast Guard was immune from lawsuits challenging its discretionary “placement of navigation aids.”
The estate also said the owner of Raccoon Island, a limited liability company, was liable for hosting a party where drugs and alcohol were served to people they knew were operating boats. The company failed to respond to the estate’s lawsuit in a timely manner. In August 2014, Judge Wood therefore entered default judgment for the estate and ordered the company to pay damages of $2 million.
This left the boat’s owner as the sole remaining defendant. Judge Wood held a one-day bench trial in July 2014. On July 10 of this year, she rendered her decision. The estate based its wrongful death claims on both federal admiralty jurisdiction and Georgia law governing the operation of motorboats.
At trial, the boat owner testified his partner was operating the boat at the moment of the accident. The other passenger could not see who was driving. Although the owner normally operated his own boat, he testified his partner had ample experience operating the vehicle in and around Jekyll Island. He also said he was unaware of her consumption of illegal drugs at the party.
In the absence of any evidence to the contrary, Judge Wood found the owner’s testimony credible. Although police investigators concluded the accident was the result of “driver inattention,” Judge Wood said there was “insufficient evidence” proving, as the estate alleged, the owner was actually driving the boat when it hit the jetty. And even if the owner was somehow negligent in allowing his impaired partner to operate the boat, Georgia law would not permit the estate to recover based on the deceased’s negligence. Accordingly, Judge Wood entered judgment for the boat owner.