Sarasota Youth Sailing: Ethan Isaacs accident UPDATE1

Ethan Isaacs

Ethan Isaacs

We previously covered the 21 November 2020 Sarasota Youth Sailing (Florida) propeller accident that claimed the life of ten year old Ethan Isaacs.

Recent events led us to publishing this update on the Ethan Isaacs accident.

Event 1 – Isaacs family files lawsuit

A wrongful death suit was filed 28 December 2020 in behalf of Ethan Isaacs.

Malinda Martin Isaacs as Personal Representative
of the Estate of Ethan Max Isaacs
Sarasota Youth Sailing, Inc. and
Riley Baugh, an individual

Filed in the Circuit Court of the Twelfth Judicial Circuit
in and for the County of Sarasota State of Florida Circuit Civil Division

Case Number 2020 CA 005516 NC

Jeffrey “Jack” Gordon of Maney & Gordon, P.A. represents the family
David Neal Gambach of Hamilton, Miller & Birthisel, LLP. represents Sarasota Youth Sailing

Mr. Baugh, a sailing coach, was the boat operator of the 20 foot Caribe RIB powered by a 90 horsepower Yamaha outboard motor that struck Ethan Isaacs after Mr. Baugh was ejected.

The suit reports Mr. Baugh was leaning out of the RIB to bail water from an Optimist sailboat (about an 8 foot long sailboat used for youth instruction). The RIB engine was running, the kill switch lanyard was not attached per the suit. Mr. Baugh unintentionally leaned into the shift-throttle, the boat began to move, ejecting Mr. Baugh. The unmanned boat continued to run striking Ethan Isaac, multiple Optimist sailboats, and some other boys.

The suit says Sarasota Youth Sailing had a duty to install or equip the Caribe with available throttle safety options that would prevent the unintentional shifting of said throttle into gear.

They point out Mr. Baugh was an employee of Sarasota Youth Sailing and thus Sarasota Youth Sailing is responsible for all damages, negligent acts, and failures to act of Mr. Baugh.

The suit also includes claims relative to weather and seas conditions.

We were a bit surprised by the absence of propeller guard claims give the aftermath of the 2017 Centerport Yacht Club accident in New York in combination with previous statements made by Yamaha in support of propeller guards in applications like this.
Attorneys requested production of a list of 82 documents including photos and videos of Mr. Baugh and all others operating any power boats at their facility. One suspects this is an effort to find photographic evidence of them not always attaching kill switch lanyards or other safety issues.

The case is being overseen by Judge Stephen Walker.

Event 2 – Sarasota Youth Sailing files for Jones Act protection

Sarasota Youth Sailing logo

Sarasota Youth Sailing logo

As is typical in high stakes legal cases in or near navigable waters, Sarasota Youth Sailing petitioned the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida in Admirality (Marine Law) in this matter with a Complaint for Exoneration From or Limitation of Liability.

What we call the Jones Act allows firms involved in significant accidents in navigable water to petition the court to limit their maximum liability in the event to the value of the vessel and its cargo.

The law comes from the early days of shipping in the United States. To encourage maritime shipping the government said that if they were in some sort of accident in which they were not negligent, their liability would be limited to the value of their vessel and its contents / cargo / freight.

In this instance Sarasota Youth Sailing states the value of the Caribe at the time of the accident was $30,000. With no cargo, they ask the court to limit their exposure to a maximum of $30,000.

While the Jones Act is commonly raised in accidents such as this one, I cannot even remember the last one in which it actually impacted awards in an accident involving recreational vessels. It does come into play with real maritime vessels and sometimes with real maritime vessels crashing into recreational vessels.

In most cases involving recreational accident they either allow the Jones Act debate to continue in the background to be decided once a verdict is reached OR it is abandoned because the waters were not navigable (basically being used in the shipping of good). The Sarasota Youth Sailing location is likely defensible as navigable waters, but Sarasota Youth Sailing is likely not going to be awarded Jones Act protection. Typically it just checking the box that we tried that defense, then just a time delay and an attempt to wear down plaintiffs.

Different states have different rules but few if any states would let the Jones Act stand in an accident like this one IF the plaintiff was able to prove negligence.

Sarasota Youth Sailing filings include a motion requiring all claimants (persons or corporations) to file their respective claims with this court (U.S. District Court of Middle Florida) by April 30, 2021.

Centerport Yacht Club RIB involved in the accident

Boat from the 2017 Centerport Yacht Club accident – NOT the vessel involved in the Sarasota Youth Sailing accident

Event 3 – Ethan Isaacs Law

The family turned to Florida State Representative Fiona McFarland to propose regulation requiring mandatory use of kill switch lanyards on boats under 26 feet. They note the U.S. Coast Guard has a similar rule going into effect in 2021. McFarland worked with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, boat owners associations, boat manufacturers, and other marine stakeholders in crafting the bill per Sarasota Herald-Tribune 4 February 2021.

The Herald-Tribune reports McFarland said there have been 95 formal reports of accidents involving a boat operator falling overboard, 79 that resulted in someone being injured or killed. We are not sure exactly what McFarland is speaking of (U.S. accidents, Florida accidents, time frame?). We would note that many more people are ejected. Accidents much meet certain requirements in able to be listed in the U.S. Coast Guard Boating Accident Report Database (BARD). Those requirements most likely to keep out man overboard accidents are injured beyond first aid, and boat and property damages of $2,000 or more. Plus many accidents meeting the requirements are never reported.

We (PropellerSafety) quickly looked in the 2019 Public BARD database for Florida open motor boats with one or more persons ejected. We found 111 open motorboat accidents in which someone was ejected. We found a total of 95 injured and 24 deaths of which 35 injuries and 13 deaths were attributable to operators. We are aware anytime you try to repeatedly cut BARD data like this some cells will not have entries in them and be dropped. For example some open motorboards may not have had an entry, some operators and occupants may not have been identified in the data, etc. The state of Florida may have more data in their state database than was submitted to or accepted by BARD. Whatever happened we found about 48 boaters injured or killed and they found 79. We did not reduce our numbers by those being ejected from boats of or in excess of 26 feet.

We were interested in seeing why the family felt the need to create this law with the Coast Guard releasing a similar law this year. They report it would allow Florida officers to enforce the same rules the U.S. Coast Guard would be enforcing, helping ensure boat operators would be using kill switch lanyards or virtual lanyards / wireless lanyards.

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