Lawsuits filed in Lake George boat accident

12/16/05 12:00AM By Susan Keese
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(Host) It's been two and a half months since the Ethan Allen tour boat capsized on Lake George. Federal Investigators say it could take more than a year to definitively determine why the boat suddenly overturned on a calm October Sunday. But lawsuits and proposed legislation have followed the accident that killed 20 elderly sightseers.

VPR's Susan Keese reports:

(Keese) The tragedy still stings, and not only in the community around Lake George. It's also felt in Michigan, where survivors and relatives of the 20 passengers killed are coping with loss, lingering injuries, and memories.

(Johnson) "I really don't think it takes a very imaginative person to think about being underneath the water with a boat on top of you seeing people panicking and screaming and other people dying right in front of your eyes."

(Keese) Michigan attorney Ven Johnson has already filed six lawsuits in Federal Court in connection with the accident. Another suit was filed in federal court in New York State. And the lawyers say more are coming.

Johnson's suits accuse the Ethan Allen's owners and captain of safety violations, including insufficient staffing. According to state regulations the Ethan Allen should have had a second crew member with 47 passengers on board. The suits also claim the owners replaced a canvas awning with a wood-and-fiberglass enclosure without allowing properly for changes in the boat's stability.

(Johnson) "And in this case with the added weight of these windows that they used for sightseeing... it added significant weight and it made the boat unsteady, and then when you added way too many people for the weight of the boat it caused the boat to tip over more easily."

(Keese) Overcrowding has been mentioned often in connection with the accident. The average weight used to calculate how many people a boat can safely carry is 140 pounds. The National Transportation Safety Board, which is conducting the investigation, says the 40-year-old standard is too light for passengers today. In 2004 they advised the Coast Guard, which certifies most boats, to raise the weight to 174. The Coast Guard has been studying the problem. But a Coast Guard spokesman says the agency won't be ready to begin taking public comment until almost a year from now.

Meanwhile, the NTSB has cautioned that even if the Ethan Allen was too crowded, it doesn't prove that overcrowding caused the accident. The same is true for the structural changes, which by state law didn't require the boat to be recertified.

Still, almost immediately, New York Governor George Pataki raised the average weight to 174 pounds for passenger boats regulated by the state. That includes any passenger boat not involved in interstate navigation or commerce. Pataki also called for a review of all of New York's commercial boating laws and regulations.

(Gibson) "Some of these things were important to get underway sooner rather than later. And so we took steps and within days of the accident was when the governor charged us with taking a look at marine enforcement, taking a look at operations."

(Keese) Wendy Gibson is with the New York Office of Parks and Recreation. That's the agency that oversees state-regulated vessels. Her agency plans to announce a broader package of reforms soon. State Senator Betty Little says that's a good thing.

(Little) "Those regulations when we looked at them, in all honesty, I think they hadn't been looked at in a long time because fortunately we hadn't had any commercial boating accidents within New York State like this."

(Keese) Little represents the district that includes Lake George. She's introduced legislation at the Governor's request.

(Little) "The one that we are doing legislatively is that the pilot or captain of any commercial boat involved in an accident that has injuries or damage is required to take a drug and alcohol test immediately."

(Keese) Much has been made of the fact that local officials didn't require the Ethan Allen's captain to be tested following the accident. The local sheriff says he had no probable cause to order the test because he didn't believe the captain had been drinking. He says his office has ruled out criminal charges.

But Kate Hogan, the Warren County District Attorney, says she'll wait for the National Transportation Safety Board results before she closes the case.

(Hogan) "I can't make a legal determination until I know what happened. And we're still at the point where I do not know what definitively or empirically caused this boat to turn over."

(Keese) Hogan says once the cause is known a Grand Jury would have more options than just deciding criminal charges are in order.

(Hogan) "They can hear testimony and make a determination that there should be a grand jury report, which is a finding with respect to public officials' conduct in this case and a report as to whether all the inspections were as they should be."

(Keese) The lawyers in the civil suits say the NTSB findings will be important to their cases as well.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Susan Keese.
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