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A federal judge has slammed the U.S. Coast Guard with a $19 million negligence verdict over a bungled response to a December 1997 sailboat crash off the South Carolina coast just outside Charleston Harbor, in which four people died. After a bench trial last summer, U.S. District Judge David C. Norton wrote in his recent opinion that the Coast Guard’s negligence caused three teenagers’ “horrific deaths in the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean.” On Dec. 26, 1997, 49-year-old Michael Wayne Cornett, his two teen-age sons and a teen-age nephew set out from Little River, S.C., in a newly purchased 34-foot sailboat, the Morning Dew. He planned to take the boat to Jacksonville, Fla., along the Intracoastal Waterway. Two days later, Cornett proceeded, probably by mistake, into open ocean, the judge found. The weather was stormy, with winds exceeding 25 knots and seas up to eight feet. Sometime around 2 a.m., the boat crashed into the north jetty at Charleston Harbor. One of the boys on the boat twice radioed a mayday message to the Coast Guard. The officer on duty said he didn’t hear “mayday” in the calls and thought they might be a hoax. He replied to both calls but did not receive answers. AN ‘AVOIDABLE’ TRAGEDY The judge concluded that, under admiralty law, the Coast Guard was reckless in its response to a distress call from a cargo ship, which heard cries for help in the water outside the harbor around 6:30 a.m. A 20-minute pre-dawn search by the ship’s pilot boat turned up nothing, and the Coast Guard did not ask it to continue searching on its behalf. Nor did the Coast Guard send its own vessels or helicopters to investigate. The bodies of the boys were found around midday. Had the Coast Guard continued investigating after sunrise, searchers would have found and rescued them, the judge concluded. Medical experts testified that the boys died between 10 a.m. and 11 a.m. The body of the father was found weeks later, but the judge said he probably was thrown overboard by the crash and could not have been saved by the Coast Guard. “This tragedy was avoidable,” the judge wrote. “It was not an angry sea or cruel weather that impeded the Coast Guard’s ability to rescue the S/V Morning Dew’s passengers. It was human error, the impetuous termination of a search and rescue mission approximately thirty minutes before sunrise.” The judge awarded the Cornett boys’ mother $12.7 million and the mother of Bobby Lee Hurd $6.3 million. Hurd v. U.S., nos. 2:99-0240-18, 2:99-0241-18, 2:99-0242-18 and 2:99-0243-18 (D.S.C. March 8, 2001). Lead plaintiffs’ attorney Gedney M. Howe III said the case began as an inquiry into the father’s insurance policy, looking for liability coverage, but turned into a negligence suit when word about the distress calls began to trickle out. Still, proving proximate cause was an obstacle. Howe said he consulted with medical experts who established that at least three hours had lapsed from when the Coast Guard called off its search until the boys’ deaths. “What looked liked a real hard part” of the case suddenly “became pretty easy,” he said. The government argued that the Coast Guard had not begun a search and therefore was not liable, said Howe. But the judge found that the search by the cargo vessel’s pilot boat was undertaken under the auspices of the Coast Guard. The Coast Guard is not required by law to conduct searches and rescues, although that is its practice, Howe said. Furor over the Coast Guard’s handling of the case triggered investigations by the National Transportation Safety Board and Congress. Coast Guard officials allegedly intentionally misled state investigators and withheld evidence, the judge concluded. Moreover, he criticized the U.S. Department of Justice’s own performance, specifically its failure to call witnesses to testify at trial. “This ‘tactical decision’ (if that is what it was) has forced the court to determine credibility on paper,” the judge wrote. Speaking on behalf of lead defense attorney Debra J. Kossow, the Justice Department’s senior admiralty counsel, civil division spokesman Charles S. Miller said that Justice is reviewing options. As for the judge’s criticism, “We just can’t respond,” he said.

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