Judge Refuses to Dismiss Lawsuit Against Firm Fingered in 3 Boat Fires

By Jim Sams | January 13, 2020

Three times in the past four years, a small boat accessory company has had to defend itself against claims that its negligence while installing equipment caused boats to catch fire.

Last week, a federal court in Orlando ruled that the latest lawsuit filed against Florida Bow Thrusters in Merritt Island, Fla. may proceed. District Judge Greg A. Presnell denied the company’s motion to dismiss a lawsuit filed against it by Ace American Insurance Co.

Ace is seeking to recover $167,829.53 that it paid to settle a claim made by Massachusetts resident Eric Slifka after his 34-foot motorboat, E=Mc2, caught fire in July 2014. Ace contends that the fire was caused by Florida Bow Thruster’s shoddy installation of a bow thruster, which is a device that is used to maneuver large boats in tight spaces.

An expert hired by the carrier reported that his examination of debris from the fire showed that the bow thruster in Slifka’s boat had been subjected to extreme overheating. A protective device that should have cut off an electrical current overload was not connected and two nut-and-bolt combinations that should have held the motor enclosure together were not installed, the expert said. What’s more, there was no gasket material on the joining surfaces of the enclosure; instead, the expert said he found the remains of silicon calk.

The Slifka litigation is Ace’s second go-around with Florida Bow Thrusters. The carrier also sued the company in 2016, demanding reimbursement for $200,000 that it paid on a claim by Aventura, Fla. resident Thomas Marroccoli for fire damage to his 94-foot yacht.

According to the suit, Marroccoli was docked at a marina in the Bahamas in June 2014 when a fire broke out on the stern end of the craft, christened My Angel. Ace alleged that a defective solenoid in a stern thruster installed by Florida Bow Thrusters sparked the blaze.

The suit was settled in 2017. A separate lawsuit filed by Marroccoli for $21,000 of uninsured losses settled separately.

Douglas Whitcomb of Asharoken, N.Y. and his insurer, Privilege Underwriters Reciprocal Exchange, also sued Florida Bow Thrusters. In a 2016 lawsuit they demanded reimbursement for $266,667 in damages caused by a fire that engulfed Whitcomb’s motorboat, Quick Whitt, while he was docked at the Huntington Yacht Club in Halesite, N.Y. Whitcomb said black smoke poured out of the port vents while he and his family disembarked after a voyage.

Whitcomb’s lawsuit alleged that the fire was caused by a defective bow and stern thrusters manufactured by Vetus Maxwell Inc., which was also named as a defendant. The suit also accused Florida Bow Thrusters of negligently installing the thrusters and failing to inspect their work.

The lawsuit was settled for undisclosed terms.

Carter Gillikin, president and part-owner of Florida Bow Thrusters, said his company was not responsible for damages in any of the three suits.

“The devices were used improperly,” he said during a telephone interview Friday. “The owners of the boat ran the thrusters too long in improper ways and the devices were overheated. That’s hard to defend for insurers and they tend to settle.”

Gillikin’s company filed a motion to dismiss Ace’s latest suit against the firm, arguing that the pleadings in the suit were unclear and that the claim was barred under the maritime economic loss rule. Judge Presnell was not persuaded and denied the motion.

The suit won’t go to trial anytime soon. The district court has given the parties until July 1 to submit expert reports and has scheduled a five-day trial to begin March 1, 2021.

Photo from Florida Bow Thruster’s website.

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