Opening Statements Begin In Gratton Lawsuit Trial

A little more than three years after veteran offshore racer Joey Gratton died during the 2011¬†Super Boat International¬†World Championships in Key West, Fla., the wrongful death lawsuit brought on his behalf by his widow, Priscilla Gratton, began today in in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Estimated to be worth more than $2 million, the suit against Super Boat International, SBI president John Carbonell and others involved in safety operations for the event alleges that the defendants failed to ensure properly trained rescue divers were able to quickly reach Gratton’s boat and delayed rescue efforts by not immediately stopping the race after the accident.

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Joey Gratton died three years ago after an accident during the 2011 SBI World Championships in Key West, Fla. Photo courtesy/copyright Jaime Russell.

The trial before Judge Carlos Rodriguez is expected to last three weeks. It is being covered by Courtroom View Network and reported on by its in-house correspondent, David Siegel.

According to a CVN webcast of the today’s proceedings as reported by Siegel, Gregory Barnhart of Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley PA representing Gratton with co-counsel Michael Allweiss of Allweiss & Allweiss, told the jury that helicopter-deployed divers known as “angels” should have been able to retrieve Gratton from his sinking boat more quickly. Instead, Barnhart said, race organizers deployed Mike Haugh, a diver with no specialized rescue training who worked professionally as a tattoo artist, from a safety boat. (Click here to read Siegel’s complete article.)

“Time is critical,” Barnhart told jurors while describing the allegedly botched rescue effort as the cockpit of Gratton’s boat filled with water over the course of nearly 10-minutes. “This is not like returning a library book. Seconds count.”

Barnhart said Haugh and other rescuers were unfamiliar with the design of Gratton’s boat and that Haugh failed to immediately provide oxygen to Gratton once gaining access to the boat’s interior, Siegel reported. Barnhart also told jurors the decision by Carbonell not to immediately halt the race after the accident also contributed to Gratton’s death (Gratton was 59 years old when he died), because it hindered the ability for rescue boats to safely reach the accident site, and that waves created by other racing boats caused water to spill into the escape hatch on Gratton’s boat.

During his relatively brief opening statement on behalf of the defendants, William B. Milliken of Hayden Milliken & Boeringer PA described powerboat racers as “wealthy thrillseekers who knew the risks of their chosen sport,” according to Siegel’s article. That Haugh wasn’t trained as a paramedic, firefighter or emergency medical technician, Milliken maintained, was irrelevant because only his skills as a diver mattered in the moments following the accident. Milliken said rescuers were blocked from immediately entering through the escape hatch while Gratton’s cockpit partner exited the boat, and that there were problems opening the boat’s canopy.

“This rescue team did everything they could, everything humanly possible to extract Joey, and unfortunately they do not extract him before he drowns,” Milliken told the jury. “But that does not mean that they’re liable or they did anything wrong.”

The trial before Judge Carlos Rodriguez is expected to last up to three-weeks. Attorneys for the plaintiff and a representative for Super Boat International did not respond to a request for comment from CVN.

Editor’s Note: gratefully acknowledges Courtroom View Network and CVN correspondent David Siegel for assistance with this story. Speedonthewater will continue to follow the trial as it progresses.

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