Lawsuit filed over Coast Guard crash

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The suit cites violation of Inland Navigation Rules in the fatal accident on San Diego Bay

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The parents of a boy who died in a December 2009 boating accident involving a Coast Guard vessel on San Diego Bay have filed a lawsuit against the agency.

"The Coast Guard boat was in direct violation of numerous state and federal codes, regulations and statutes, including but not limited to the Inland Navigation Rules Act and the Coast Guard's own boating safety regulations," according to the 11-page lawsuit, a copy of which Soundings Trade Only obtained. No monetary amount is stated in the suit.

The Coast Guard boat - a foam- collared aluminum 33-footer with triple 275-hp Mercury 4-strokes - struck the 26-foot Sea Ray around 6 p.m. Dec. 20, killing 8-year-old Anthony DeWeese. The DeWeeses and two other families were aboard the 2003 240 Sundeck just south of Harbor Island, waiting for a holiday boat parade, according to Michael Neil of Neil Dymott Attorneys in San Diego, which filed the suit in mid-February. The Coast Guard boat was responding to a report of a grounded vessel when it struck the Sea Ray, according to Coast Guard Sector San Diego spokesman Lt. Josh Nelson.

The Coast Guard expected to file a response to the lawsuit in mid-April, says Charles Miller, spokesman for the Department of Justice's civil division. "At that time we will be able to provide you with whatever we publicly file to state what the government's position is on the matter," he says. "But right now we have no comment."

The lawsuit also states that "there have been several instances of the crew of the Coast Guard boat operating the boat at an excessive and unsafe speed in or around San Diego Bay and that permitting the continued ... operation by the crew posed a significant risk of collision with other boaters."

This issue was raised prior to the filing, and the Coast Guard responded by saying its boats may be seen operating fast during training exercises or during search-and-rescue operations.

None of the five Coast Guard crewmembers was injured in the accident, says Nelson. All five have been put on administrative duty until the Coast Guard investigation is completed, he says. The probe could take up to a year to complete. In addition, the agency is working with the San Diego Harbor police on a second investigation, and the National Transportation Safety Board has also initiated an investigation, which is expected to take a year.

The NTSB did state that drug and alcohol test results on the five Coast Guard crewmembers and the operator of the recreational vessel - Alan DeWeese, 44, the victim's father - were negative. The speed the Coast Guard vessel was traveling and other details won't be released until the Coast Guard's investigation is complete, says Nelson.

DeWeese, an experienced boater, believes the rescue boat was traveling 30 to 40 mph, says Neil. The Sea Ray had its navigation lights on and was idling at 3 to 4 mph, says Neil.

"The Coast Guard boat approached the vessel at a high rate of speed from astern," the lawsuit states. "Alan DeWeese ... saw he had no alternative and acted as a reasonably prudent operator and attempted to maneuver the vessel to avoid a collision. DeWeese was able to steer the vessel to starboard, but the Coast Guard boat collided with the stern of the vessel."

Anthony DeWeese died of blunt force trauma, according to published reports. The Coast Guard boat ran over the Sea Ray's stern from starboard to port, says Neil. The boy was in the transom seat.

His mother, Caroline DeWeese, and two brothers, Nathan, 9, and Dominick, 3, were also on the boat. There were a total of 13 people on board - six adults and seven children younger than 11, says Neil. All 13 are named as plaintiffs in the suit, "DeWeese et al vs. the United States of America," filed in U.S. District Court in the Southern District of California. The lawsuit also cites purported deficiencies in the crew's training and equipment.

"The assigned crew of the Coast Guard boat did not have the required training nor did they possess the skills to pilot the Coast Guard boat on San Diego Bay," according to the lawsuit. "The Coast Guard boat lacked the necessary equipment to safely maneuver in San Diego Bay, and/or the equipment on board the Coast Guard boat was in disrepair."

Nelson says rescue-boat operator candidates must successfully complete 10 to 12 months of training before becoming a coxswain.

"We don't just throw anybody out there to drive these boats," says Nelson.

Once qualified, coxswains must complete quarterly proficiency training, and they are evaluated annually by an outside source who "watches them execute maneuvers to make sure they are up to standard and continually progressing and developing and able to do the job safely," says Nelson.

This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.

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