Parties Accused in Tragic N.Y. Boat Capsizing Deny Negligence

March 30, 2006

Defendants accused in the overturning of a boat that killed 20 elderly tourists last year on an Adirondack lake in New York argued in court papers they weren’t at fault and the accident was caused by events beyond their control.

“Everybody wants to blame someone else, including the Good Lord and the USA.,” said attorney James Hacker, who sued Nov. 10 on behalf of Viola Urbaniak’s family, claiming negligence killed her. “Both of which I can tell you weren’t there that day.”

The 40-foot Ethan Allen carried 47 passengers and its captain on Oct. 2 — a calm, sunny Sunday — when it suddenly tipped over, sending screaming tourists into Lake George. Pleasure boaters threw life preservers to the victims and pulled people to safety, but others were trapped beneath the boat.

Nineteen of the 20 who died were from Michigan. Urbaniak, 89, was from Temperance, Mich.

Sheriff’s investigators concluded Feb. 3 in a 530-page report that neither the vessel’s owner nor its captain committed a crime. But a civil suit claims the boat was improperly designed and operated, as well as overcrowded, unstable, understaffed and hit by a dangerous wake from another boat.

Attorneys for Shoreline Cruises and Captain Richard Paris deny any negligence, pointing instead to “an unforeseeable sudden emergency” or to “an act of God.”

“It’s our position that there was a wake that swamped the boat,” said Fred Zinober, attorney for the company and captain. Paris told sheriff’s investigators the same thing. The Ethan Allen was under its passenger limit of 50, had cruised before fully loaded and went out hundreds of times since it was modified and never had problems, he said.

The boat’s recent changes included a heavier canopy and a larger engine in 1997.

Scarano Boat Building denied it was at fault and argued that the U.S. Coast Guard was negligent by certifying in 1966 that the boat was stable and then repeatedly certifying it for a capacity of 50 people. Scarano attorney Neil Goldberg declined to comment further.

Coast Guard spokeswoman Angela McArdle said she couldn’t discuss pending litigation. However, officials said previously that Shoreline used the boat for the past several years on inland waterways with its annual inspections and recertification under the jurisdiction of the state Office of Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation.

One notice of claim has been filed in the state Court of Claims against the state parks office, spokeswoman Wendy Gibson said Tuesday.

Five days after the Ethan Allen disaster, the state changed its passenger capacity standards. They had mirrored the long-standing Coast Guard standard, determining boat capacity based on average passenger weights of 140 pounds. State inspections now use a 174-pound standard considered more realistic.

The Coast Guard may soon modify its passenger weight and capacity standards, McArdle said. “We’re moving quickly to try to get something in place before the busy boating season gets started,” she said.

The Lake George Steamboat Company, whose tour boat Mohican was on Lake George Oct. 2, was also named a defendant. It was rumored to have caused the wake that tilted the Ethan Allen.

“It is our position that … we did not in anyway contribute to the happening of the accident,” attorney Mandy McFarland said.

A conference is scheduled May 24 before U.S. Magistrate Judge David Homer in Albany. Hacker, who also sued on behalf of passenger Dorothy Riley, said all the federal cases, including some filed in Michigan, will likely consolidate with this one.

Another named defendant is the Canadian company Shoreline Tours that organized the leaf-peeping tour and had a guide aboard the Ethan Allen.

“I think at this point we’re waiting for the National Transportation Safety Board report,” Hacker said. “After that, there’s an issue I think regarding the pump on the boat. That may lead to additional defendants.”

The NTSB has not issued its final report.

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