At a time when visitors must be concerned for their safety at most popular tourist attractions, the serene lake in the heart of New York’s Adirondack Mountains offered the group of elderly sightseers from Michigan a place to let down their guard and enjoy a quiet boat ride on a beautiful autumn day.
Soon, however, the calm of Lake George was shattered by the screams of 47 passengers of the tour boat, Ethan Allen, as they slid to one side of the crowded vessel. Almost immediately, the boat capsized.
The elderly passengers, without lifejackets on and unable to swim, desperately tried to remain afloat in the 69-degree water until help arrived. As rescuers attempted to turn the boat over to see if anyone was trapped, it slipped under the surface and sank in 70 feet of water.
Twenty passengers couldn’t be saved. Their senior citizen excursion had turned into a death cruise. As the bodies were laid out in rows on the shore and covered with sheets, the magnitude of the tragedy began to settle in.
Seasoned State Troopers, emergency medical personnel, and average citizens who just tried to help, found it difficult to hide their emotions as they watched death separate husbands and wives and close friends forever. One of the dead women had even been anticipating the birth of a grandchild in the next few weeks.
Within hours of the sinking, police and public officials issued statements promising a full investigation. Plans were made to raise the boat the very next day.
On Monday, less than 24 hours after the sinking, the Ethan Allen was raised to the surface by divers and brought back to the dock so that a complete examination of the vessel could begin. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will participate in the investigation.
As this tragedy unfolds, the following questions must be answered:
(1) What caused the Ethan Allen to capsize and sink?
(2) Why was there such a great loss of life?
(3) Who is responsible for the disaster?
Obviously, large boats loaded with passengers don’t just sink without a reason. Here, there was an obvious shift of weight on the Ethan Allen immediately before it capsized. What caused the passengers to be thrown to one side of the boat remains to be determined. One theory repeatedly advanced by witnesses is that the wake from a larger tour boat that passed the Ethan Allen caused it to tip to one side.
Other issues must also be resolved with respect to: (1) the absence of a second crew member (besides the operator) on the crowded boat; (2) whether the boat was overloaded in terms of weight or passengers even though the vessel was permitted to carry 50 passengers; (3) what role modifications made to the boat played in terms of altering the weight distribution; and (4) whether senior citizens who were in no condition to swim or even stay afloat on their own should have had their life preservers already on when the boat left the dock.
Although the actual mechanics of an accident like this one often turn out to be rather simple, placing responsibility (and legal liability) for such a catastrophe can be much more problematic.
In order to understand the potential claims which may exist in this case, we spoke with several attorneys familiar with this type of litigation. One of those attorneys was Jerrold S. Parker, senior partner of Parker & Waichman, a prominent New York law firm which has been involved in a number of high-profile personal injury and wrongful death cases around the United States over the past several years.
Mr. Parker stated that his office has already had several inquiries from victims’ families and, as a result, he has contacted experts for their opinions as to what possible theories of liability might exist in this case. “Probably the most important thing to do in a case like this is to hit the ground running and have top notch experts ready to investigate the accident before evidence is lost or destroyed and witnesses’ recollections fade,” he said.
Here however, Parker pointed out a couple of considerations which may come into play given the magnitude of the disaster and the fact that tour boats like the Ethan Allen are subject to regulation by various governmental agencies.
According to Parker; “Insurance coverage will be an issue since the company that operated the Ethan Allen might not have sufficient coverage or assets to pay for 20 deaths as well as all of the serious injuries and emotional trauma the accident caused.”
In addition, there might be liability on the part of another vessel whose negligent operation may have caused, or contributed to, the capsizing of the Ethan Allen. Anyone who modified the Ethan Allen in any way that may have changed its stability or weight distribution might also be liable. “That’s another reason having experts on the case from the beginning is important.”
“Finally,” Parker said, “there is the issue of potential liability on the part of one or more governmental agencies or municipalities that were responsible for the inspection and regulation of the Ethan Allen and similar tour boats on Lake George. Towns, counties, police departments, agencies, and even the state itself might have breached some duty with respect to passengers aboard the Ethan Allen.”
If that turns out to be the case, “the injured passengers and the families of those who died have very short time limitations in which to file a claim against the appropriate municipality, municipal subdivision, or governmental agency,” said Parker. “If you don’t know your legal obligations in terms of filing notices of claim and other legal documents, you could lose your case before it even gets started. That’s why people must have competent legal representation as soon as possible in any case where a municipality or government agency might be involved.”
Other attorneys we spoke with echoed Mr. Parker’s concern that anyone involved in this case should seek qualified legal representation as soon as possible in order to protect their rights and avoid potential difficulties in terms of filing a claim.