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Suits filed in two fatal Florida accidents

Three people died and several were injured during two on-the-water collisions last year

Three people died and several were injured during two on-the-water collisions last year

Lawsuits have been filed in the 2006 nighttime Columbus Day boating accident on Biscayne Bay in which two died and seven were hurt; and in a second collision last year in fog off Tampa in which a woman died.

The Columbus Day suits — filed between November and January — are tangled in arguments over whether the cases should be heard in county circuit court or federal district court, where the defendants have asked the judge to limit their damages for the deaths and injuries.

“Even though [the defendants] caused millions and millions of dollars in damage, they’re trying to limit it to the value of the boats,” says attorney Andrew Yaffa, who represents four of the injured people.

Monica Burguera, 20, of Puerto Rico and James Noel-Pou, 23, of Doral died around 8:30 p.m. Oct. 7 when a 36-foot Intrepid, Triple Play, ran up and on top of their 22-foot rented Sea Ray, which was under tow on Biscayne Bay. Seven other young people on the Sea Ray were seriously hurt.

The Intrepid’s owners, Graham Schena, Chris Trier and Roland Desrochers — who was at the wheel at the time of the accident, and the rental boat’s owner, South Beach Boat Club LLC, have filed separate petitions in Miami Federal District Court asking that damage claims for the dead and injured be heard under federal admiralty law so that liability of the Intrepid and Sea Ray’s owners can be limited to the value of their boats. Triple Play’s owners value their boat at $100,000.

Attorneys for the dead and injured have filed suit against the owners of both boats in Dade County Circuit Court. Court documents allege the Sea Ray that South Beach rented to Noel-Pou was neither properly equipped with navigation lights nor in good repair (it broke down), that the 16-year-old “captain” that South Beach provided Noel-Pou and who was at the wheel of the boat towing the broken-down Sea Ray was unlicensed and a rental company employee at the time of the accident, and that this captain did not have tow lights on his boat when he took the unlighted Sea Ray under tow.

They also allege that Triple Play was operating without proper navigation lights, did not have a searchlight for operating at night on a crowded waterway, was going too fast — so fast in fact that it drove up over the smaller boat — and didn’t keep a lookout or yield to the tow.

Responding to the boat owners in federal court, attorneys for the dead and injured have asked the federal court to deny the limitation of liability under admiralty law and let the circuit court hear the cases. They allege that both the rental boat firm and Intrepid owners are at fault for the accident.

In filings in federal court, the Intrepid’s owners deny they are at fault. They say that neither the broken-down Sea Ray nor a second boat under tow nor the one that was doing the towing had any navigation lights on. They also say the Intrepid was not speeding, and its crewmembers were keeping a lookout and were displaying their running lights.

Rental boat owner SouthBeach claims it was not at fault, either. It says the Intrepid was speeding, did not keep a proper lookout and failed to give way to a vessel in tow. SouthBeach also claims Noel-Pou, who rented the Sea Ray, was only supposed to have it out on the water during daylight hours and was legally responsible for the boat while he was using it. The 16-year-old who was at the wheel of the towing boat, though provided through the rental office as a “captain” for the group, was Noel-Pou’s employee and not the rental company’s at the time of the accident, according to documents filed by SouthBeach.

In the second case, filed last fall in U.S. District Court in Tampa, Vincent Mazolla, of New Jersey, has sued the owner of Lazy Bones, the charter fishing boat that he, his wife Theresa and another couple were on, and the owner of a second boat, Almost There, that collided with Lazy Bones in fog off Tampa a year ago Jan. 16, sinking the fishboat and killing Mazolla’s wife.

Mazolla alleges that Andrew Hoffman, skipper and principal in Lazy Bones Charter Inc., failed to keep a lookout, didn’t sound fog signals and didn’t use proper judgment in staying anchored off Anclote Key to fish when fog rolled in. Mazolla’s suit also faults Ronald Lacey, skipper and an owner of the 56-foot Sea Ray, Almost There, with going too fast in the foggy conditions and failing to keep a proper lookout, sound fog signals or properly light his boat as he came down on the anchored Lazy Bones. Mazolla is asking for damages of more than $75,000. Lacey and Hoffman have denied they were at fault in court filings, each alleging the other caused the accident.