Federal Judge Awards Race Participant Nearly $1 Million in Negligence Case
A federal judge from the District of South Carolina has awarded nearly $1 million to an invited guest/plaintiff on a boat participating in a sailing race, finding that the captain of the boat/defendant was negligent.
Defendant Steve A. Lesniak’s negligence led to plaintiff Raven Renee Ray being struck by the main sheet and suffering a concussion. The award, wrote the court, “gives Ray what she deserves — just some justice, some recognition and help.”
At the time of the incident at issue, Ray, a 29-year-old female, was working two jobs in the food and beverage industry, volunteering at an acupuncture clinic, and simultaneously pursuing advanced degrees in psychology and clinical counseling at The Citadel. Ray had never been on a sailboat before the day of the incident.
At the time of the incident, 57-year-old Lesniak was the owner, operator, and captain of the sailboat, called the Celadon, on which the incident occurred. Lesniak is an experienced captain, who has 35 years of sailing experience—including 25 years of sailing experience. He has captained “several hundred, maybe a thousand” sailboat races, according to testimony.
The Celadon is a 51-foot, 1995 Beneteau Oceanis 510 registered in Charleston County, S.C. At the time of the incident, Lesniak had owned and operated the Celadon for approximately 15 years.
The accident occurred on May 21, 2014. Ray was invited to a sailboat race by Colin Skinner (Skinner), who Ray knew as a “regular” customer at the Oak Bar Tavern where she worked. Skinner was a crew member on the Celadon. Skinner has been sailing with Lesniak for “roughly five years.” Lesniak allowed Skinner to invite a guest on the boat.
The other crew members who were on the Celadon during the incident had years of sailing experience, many as crew members with Lesniak. Of the crew members on the boat at the time of the incident, at least three had medical backgrounds, ranging from Emergency Room nurse to thoracic surgeon. Lesniak testified that these crew members had previously taken action if anyone suffered an injury on the boat during sailing races and trips.
Ray and Skinner arrived at the Carolina Yacht Club, the marina where the yacht was docked. When she got to the boat, there were “many” people on the boat, including crew members and guests. Ray testified that she did not know anyone on the boat other than Skinner. Ray, who had never been on a sailboat, knew nothing about how a sailboat worked, according to the court.
Lesniak did not give safety instructions, oral or written, to any of the guests, including Ray. Furthermore, he did not have a written safety checklist or conduct a safety and operational briefing before the Celadon left the marina. At the time of the incident, there were no safety placards or visual displays on the Celadon stating that there were dangerous places to sit on the boat, such as “around any rope, boom.”
Ray was late to the start of the boat race and was given an abbreviated version of the “safety talk” by crew members, which involved an instruction on where not to sit on the boat. Upon arriving on the Celadon, Skinner placed Ray at the position where she was sitting when the main sheet hit her. Ray was seated on the deck of the Celadon, near the main sheet.
Within five to 10 minutes of Ray stepping on board the Celadon, the incident occurred. Before she was hit, Ray was given instructions by crew members to “get more neighborly, get closer together.” Specifically, crew member Dawn Truog asked Ray, who was sitting in front of the main sheet, to “move back from the [main] sheet.” There was no evidence presented that Ray knew what a “main sheet” was. Crew member Mary Anne Becker (“Becker”) also testified, stating that she “told [Ray] specifically to move, move up front, move forward” multiple times, because Ray “was going to be brushed by the sheets” when the boat gybed. Becker further testified that even after these verbal warnings to move, Ray “didn’t move,” and “the next thing” Becker knew was Ray “down on the gutter” of the boat.
Lesniak made the decision to gybe, which is the action that caused the main sheet to strike Ray. When the captain executes a gybe maneuver, as Lesniak did here, the main sheet moves across the deck of the boat.
Lesniak saw the main sheet strike Ray, the force of the impact throwing her from her seated position onto the deck of the boat.
After Ray was injured, Lesniak did not turn the boat around. Lesniak continued with the boat race.
Breach of Safety Protocol
The court gave significant weight to the testimony of Ray’s expert, Captain Ken Wahl, who opined that competitive sailboat racing “requires a large number of experienced crew to adequately handle the fast-paced activities normally observed during this often dangerous and close quarters style of competitive sailing.” Wahl further opined that “only highly-experienced persons should be aboard for these events.”
Wahl added that Lesniak, who had captained hundreds of races, became “complacent” by delegating the “safety orientation” for guests to crew members. What he should have done, he suggested, is not just tell the inexperienced guest, Ray, that she should move, “physically ensure that she had been moved to a safer place.”
As to any comparative negligence, the court acknowledged that Ray was told to move away from the main sheet by multiple crew members, including Truog and Becker, but did not move. Further, after getting hit by the main sheet, Ray did not ask anyone for medical attention and did not appear to be in need of any medical attention. And when Ray got off the Celadon at the conclusion of the race, Lesniak asked her if she was “okay” and she replied that “she was fine.”
A few days after the incident, Lesniak contacted Ray to give her the option of going to see Bill Lynch, a crew member on the Celadon during the incident and a doctor, at no cost. Ray declined.
Not long after that, however, Ray sough medical help. She was seen by a neurologist who diagnosed Ray with a concussion and prescribed medications for a head injury.
The only medical expert who testified during the trial was Dr. Marshall Allen White, a board-certified neurologist. He opined that Ray sustained a traumatic brain injury.
“Specifically, Dr. White testified that Ray had the symptoms of a concussion immediately following the incident, in that she was ‘dazed, confused,’ and the morning after the event she felt ‘that she was not going to be able to wake up,’ which Dr. White testified indicated ‘a level of hypersomnolence, which is typical following a concussion,’” wrote the judge.
The court noted that Lesniak “argued at various points during the bench trial that Ray did not immediately experience any symptoms of headaches, nausea, and vomiting while on the Celadon or the next day.” Dr. White testified that there can be “delayed effects from concussion,” especially in light of the fact that Ray “had consumed at least one beer immediately before the incident. Alcohol consumption, Dr. White testified, would impair Ray’s ability to recognize her symptoms.”
The court went on to describe what, in Dr. White’s opinion, were the lingering effects of the traumatic brain injury that she suffered during the incident.
In its conclusion, the court wrote that Lesniak “was negligent in doing a gybe maneuver when he and his crew members knew or should have known that Ray was sitting in front of the main sheet which is a dangerous place to sit. Prior to undertaking the gybe maneuver during the sailboat race, Lesniak had a duty to: (1) properly administer safety briefings to Ray that included where the safe places to sit on the boat were during the race; (2) warn Ray that the gybe maneuver was going to be undertaken; (3) not gybe until Ray was no longer sitting in front of the main sheet; and (4) not hit Ray with the main sheet rope during the gybe maneuver. A failure to follow safety precautions, including telling Ray where to move and delaying the gybe maneuver until Ray had moved to a safe place, was a breach of Lesniak’s duty to Ray. The court further finds that it was completely foreseeable to Lesniak that Ray could be injured by his failure to warn her that a gybe maneuver was going to be undertaken that would involve moving the main sheet that she was sitting directly in front of, and his failure to prevent the main sheet from hitting Ray. Lesniak’s negligence was a proximate cause of Ray’s injuries; but for this breach of duty, Ray’s injuries would not have occurred.”
However, there was also a measure of comparative negligence, according to the court, which found: “Specifically, Ray failed to pay attention to warnings from multiple crew members to move from her position in front of the main sheet rope. Ray was to blame, in part, for being hit by the main sheet. The court finds that Ray was twenty-five percent to blame, and so reduces her damages by twenty-five percent.”
Based on the findings, the court ordered Lesniak to pay Ray $958,758.15,6 plus prejudgment interest in the amount of $22,151.44, and postjudgment interest at the legal rate from the date of this order.
Raven Renee Ray v. Steve A. Lesniak; D.S.C.; No.: 2:16-cv-1752-DCN, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 28301; 2/22/18
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Benjamin Catlett Smoot, II, William P Early, LEAD ATTORNEY, Pierce Herns Sloan and McLeod, Charleston, SC; Theodore Augustus Consta Hargrove, II, Pierce Herns Sloan and Wilson LLC, Charleston, SC. (for defendant) Joseph R Weston, Stephanie A Phillips, LEAD ATTORNEYS, Weston Law Firm, Mt Pleasant, SC.