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Suit for Man’s Drowning Leads to Safety Changes in Sport of Rowing

Suit for Man’s Drowning Leads to Safety Changes in Sport of Rowing

Catilo v. Alexandria Crew Boosters Club, Inc., D.C., D.C. Super., No.OA. 05-2751, May 2007.

by Mary Alice Patterson

Life jackets and safety lanyards on crew boats can save lives when a boat occupant falls overboard, but the use of such devices has not always been required by rowing industry standards. When Alejandro and Maria Catilo’s son, John Steve, drowned while volunteering for a local crew club that did not require the use of these safety devices, the Catilos set out to hold the club and the governing body of the sport of rowing accountable, leading to changes in the way the industry enforces the use of lifesaving equipment and ensuring that others do not have to suffer a similar loss.

John Steve, 20, was an experienced rower. He was a member of the crew team at his high school, and he came home to Alexandria, Virginia every summer during college to volunteer at the city’s crew club, teaching others how to row. While coaching a group of teenagers one summer morning on the Potomac River, he restarted his boat’s engine and was suddenly thrown into the river. He was not wearing a life jacket, and the club had not installed a safety lanyard, which connects the operator to the boat and turns the boat’s engine off when the operator falls into the water. The boat drifted away while John Steve struggled. He resurfaced twice before drowning. His body was found two days later, two miles downstream. John Steve was about to enter his senior year at the University of Virginia and had plans to become a surgeon. He is survived by his parents and two older siblings.

John Steve’s parents felt the crew club was responsible for their son’s death because it did not require him to wear a life jacket. They also wanted to make changes in the way the rowing industry enforces the use of lifesaving devices. A friend of the family referred the Catilos to American Association for Justice (AAJ) members Scott M. Perry and Bruce J. Klores, both of Washington, DC. “It was clear from the beginning that the Catilos wanted to ensure that no other family ever has to suffer from a preventable tragedy such as this,” said Perry, who saw the case as a rare opportunity to make national-level changes to an entire industry. Perry explained that the first step was to learn as much as possible about rowing in general and the laws and practices applicable to the sport. Perry and Klores were surprised to learn that safety devices were not being routinely utilized. “The more we looked at the case, the more we realized how preventable this tragedy really was,” said Perry. During discovery, they learned that life jackets from the crew club’s boathouse were being used as cushions on boat trailers, and shortly after John Steve’s death, police found safety lanyards in the boathouse in their original bags.

John Steve’s parents sued Alexandria Crew Boosters Club, Incorporated, alleging failure to have written rules or recommendations requiring the use of life jackets and safety lanyards and alleging failure to provide proper safety training to the coaches. As Perry and Klores began receiving materials from the club in discovery, they formed the opinion that it relied on USRowing, the national governing body of rowing, to determine safety protocols. For example, the club showed a safety video prepared by USRowing to its coaches. The video had not been updated in more than 20 years, it did not show anyone wearing life jackets, and there was no mention of safety lanyards. Perry and Klores believed USRowing shared the blame for John Steve’s death. The suit alleged that as the national governing body USRowing had a duty to ensure that its safety recommendations were current.

The defendants contended that the standard of care in the sport did not require the use of life jackets and safety lanyards because many crew organizations across the country do not require their coaches to wear life jackets. Furthermore, federal law and the law in the District of Columbia—where suit was filed because it has jurisdiction over the part of the river where John Steve drowned—do not require the use of these safety devices, which allowed defendants to claim that the plaintiffs were trying to hold them to a higher standard than the law required.

Perry and Klores thus had to show that the sport of rowing was behind the times in terms of safety. The safety benefits of life jackets have been known for a long time, and the lack of a requirement that they be used was not sufficient, they argued; organizations that do not require the use of life jackets do so at their peril. “We tried to demonstrate that the fact that the majority of people may not be doing it is no excuse when lives are at stake,” said Perry.

The attorneys relied on the research of boating safety expert Gerald Dworkin, of Harrisville, New Hampshire, which found that 89 % of those killed in boating accidents would have survived had they been wearing life jackets. Perry and Klores also hired rowing safety expert Carl Douglas, of Middlesex, England, to discuss international rowing safety practices and how the United States has long lagged behind in safety. They argued that life jackets are required internationally, especially in Europe, and there was no reason why the United States should be different. The attorneys also demonstrated that at the time of John Steve’s death, other rowing clubs in the United States required the use of life jackets.

The defendants also argued that John Steve—a junior coach—was contributorily negligent in that he chose not to wear a life jacket. None of the coaches wore life jackets, including the senior coaches, who taught the junior coaches. “A junior coach could hardly be expected to wear a life jacket when none of the senior coaches did so,” said Perry, adding that the defendants were essentially arguing that John Steve should be held to a higher standard than the coaches who taught him.

John Steve’s parents would not accept a settlement unless the defendants agreed to make safety changes on a national level. The parties subsequently settled at mediation for a confidential amount, with the defendants agreeing to make important changes in how they enforced safety. The crew club now requires its coaches to wear life jackets and use safety lanyards. The club also has a dock master posted at the boathouse to communicate with coaches via two-way radios. USRowing agreed to issue safety recommendations to its members that life jackets and safety lanyards should be used and to show coaches wearing life jackets in the next version of its safety video, which will also recommend wearing them. USRowing has also placed a story about John Steve’s death on its website to remind others about the dangers of not using life jackets and safety lanyards. The crew club will also establish a merit-based scholarship in John Steve’s name and has renamed its safety manual after him, among other activities honoring John Steve.

In addition to the expertise of Douglas and Dworkin, Perry and Klores relied on the knowledge of experts Allen Rosenberg of Arlington, VA, for information about rowing safety, Dennis Hance of Washington, DC, regarding boating safety and river regulations, and Alan Steinman of Dupont, WA, for information about maritime medicine.

Perry explained that John Steve’s family feels comforted that, as a person who was dedicated to helping others, John Steve will continue to do so through these safety changes. “I am already seeing the impact this case has had,” Perry said. “When I look out now along the Potomac River, I see coaches wearing life jackets. And each time I see that, I smile and think of John Steve.”