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Ray v. Lesniak

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division

February 22, 2018

Raven Renee Ray, Plaintiff,
Steve A. Lesniak, Defendant.



         Plaintiff Raven Renee Ray (“Ray”) brought this admiralty action against Defendant Steve A. Lesniak (“Lesniak”) pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9(h). Ray is suing Lesniak for personal injuries and other damages she sustained as a result of being struck by the main sheet during a sailing race on Lesniak's boat “the Celadon.”

         The court tried this case without a jury on September 18, 2017. Having considered the testimony and the exhibits admitted at trial, as well as the parties' pre-trial briefs and post-trial proposed findings and conclusions, the court now makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law in accordance with Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 52(a). It finds that Lesniak was negligent in his captaining of the Celadon, that Ray suffered an injury while an invited guest on the Celadon as a result of Lesniak's negligence, and that as a result of this injury Ray has a permanent traumatic brain injury. It awards $958, 758.15 in damages. This award, in the court's eyes, gives Ray what she deserves-“just some justice, some recognition and help.” Tr. 135:24.

         FINDINGS OF FACT[1]

         1. At the time of the incident at issue, Ray was a 29-year-old female 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.

         2. At the time of the incident, 57-year-old Lesniak was the owner, operator, and captain of the sailboat Celadon on which the incident occurred. Lesniak is an experienced captain, who has 35 years of sailing experience-including 25 years of sailing experience in Charleston. Tr. 205:15-17. He has captained “several hundred, maybe a thousand” sailboat races. Tr. 205:18-20. He has been sailing with some of the crew members that were on the Celadon at the time of the incident for “15, 20 years.” Tr. 205:24-206:7.

         3. The sailboat Celadon on which the incident occurred is a fifty-one foot, 1995 Beneteau Oceanis 510 registered in Charleston County, South Carolina. At the time of the incident, Lesniak had owned and operated the Celadon for approximately fifteen years.

         4. Operation of the sailboat during a race requires several crewmembers. Thirteen crewmembers and a number of guests were aboard the sailboat on the day of the incident. Tr. 182:1-183:1.

         A. The Accident:

         1. The court now turns to the day of the incident, 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. Tr. 106:14-20. Skinner was a crew member on the Celadon. Tr. 184:3-6. Skinner has been sailing with Lesniak for “[r]oughly five years.” Tr. 206:20-22. Lesniak allowed Skinner to invite a guest on the boat. Tr. 184:5-6.

         2. The other crew members who were on the Celadon during the incident had years of sailing experience, many as crew members with Lesniak. Tr. 206:10-208:4. 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. Tr. 206:10-208:9. Lesniak testified that these crew members had previously taken action if anyone suffered an injury on the boat during sailing races and trips. Tr. 209:21-210:5.

         3. Lesniak testified that all of his crew members “[knew] to look after new people.” Tr. 208:18-21.

         4. Lesniak authorized crew members to perform tasks during the race, including telling guests when and where to move during the course of the race. Tr. 209:1- 20.

         5. Ray and Skinner arrived at the Carolina Yacht Club, the marina where the yacht was docked. Tr. 107:7-12. When she got to the boat, there were “many” people on the boat, including crew members and guests. Tr. 108:1-4. Ray testified that she did not know anyone on the boat other than Skinner. Tr. 108:5-6.

         6. Before May 21st, 2014, Ray had never been on a sailboat. Tr. 106:21-107:1. She knew nothing about how a sailboat worked. Tr. 107:2-4.

         7. Lesniak did not give safety instructions to any of the guests, including Ray, who was on the Celadon. Tr. 184:12-17. He also did not give any written instructions to guests. Tr. 187:2-6. Furthermore, he did not have a written safety checklist or conduct a safety and operational briefing before the Celadon left the marina. Tr. 187:16-21. 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.” Tr. 186:20-187:1. Lesniak delegated the giving of safety instructions to two crew members, neither of whom testified during the trial. Tr. 14:16-185:6. Lesniak did not hear what safety talks were given to guests because he was at the helm of the boat. Tr. 185:5-9.

         8. 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. Tr. 192:10-18.

         9. Upon arriving on the Celadon, Skinner placed Ray at the position where she was sitting when the main sheet hit her. Tr. 264:8-265:19. Ray was seated on the deck of the Celadon, near the main sheet. Ex. 13.

         10. The crew was aware of where Ray was sitting. Tr. 204:4-6.

         11. Within 5-10 minutes of Ray stepping on board the Celadon, the incident occurred. Tr. 194:2-5.

         12. Before she was hit, Ray was given instructions by crew members to “get more neighborly, get closer together.” Tr. 114:2-3. Specifically, crew member Dawn Truog (“Truog”) asked Ray, who was sitting in front of the main sheet, to “move back from the [main] sheet.” Tr. 250:16-25. 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. Tr. 257:6-12. 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. Tr. 257:17-20.

         13. Lesniak made the decision to gybe, which is the action that caused the main sheet to strike Ray. Tr. 199:16-17. When the captain executes a gybe maneuver, as Lesniak did here, the main sheet moves across the deck of the boat. Tr. 221:14- 25.

         14. Lesniak testified that members of his crew told Ray to move “several times” and that the crew members were aware that she did not move-even after Lesniak had called for the gybe maneuver. Tr. 213:22-214:5. For example, Truog was aware that Ray was sitting in front of the main sheet when Lesniak gybed. Tr. 254:25- 255:3. Truog saw “the boom [come] over, and that [Ray] was pushed down to the side of the boat.” Tr. 251:9-18.

         15. If Lesniak had waited to gybe or made sure that Ray was in a safe location, Ray would not have been hit by the main sheet. Tr. 202:9-13.

         16. After Lesniak did the gybe maneuver, Ray was hit by the main sheet, the force of which threw her from her seated position onto the deck of the boat. Tr. 115:14- 20. The main sheet carries a significant amount of pressure, “absolutely” enough to cause a serious injury. Tr. 237:6-25. Lesniak saw the main sheet strike Ray. Tr. 198:25-199:6.

         17. The court considered the testimony of various crew members who were on the Celadon during the incident. For example, Dr. Bill Lynch testified about the main sheet hitting Ray. Additionally, he testified that he did not give any safety instructions to Ray, and was not aware of any sailing experience that she had. Tr. 247:1-6.

         18. Ray was left with an abrasion on her forehead as a result of the main sheet hitting her. Pl.'s Ex. 2.

         19. After Ray was injured, Lesniak did not turn the boat around. Tr. 117:5-12. Lesniak continued with the boat race. Tr. 148:10-18.

         B. Breach of Safety Protocol:

         1. Ray testified about the instructions she was given when she got on the Celadon. Specifically, Ray stated that she was “told where the lines were” and where to sit. Tr. 109:18-23. She was given these instructions and told where to sit by a crew member, “Peggy.” Tr. 110:6-9. She was not warned that she “might get hit in the head with a boom or a rope or anything like that.” Tr. 110:10-17. There were also no written instructions on the “hull or deck of the boat or bow or the stern, starboard side” that said where to sit, and no one gave written instructions to Ray when she was on the boat. Tr. 110:18-24. There was also no formal verbal safety briefing. Tr. 111:4-7.

         2. Ray did not hear, and “wouldn't have understood” any instructions on whether the boom or main sheet were going to swing during the course of the race. Tr. 115:1- 4.

         3. The court also credits the testimony of Ray's expert Captain Ken Wahl (“Wahl”), who the court qualified as a boating expert and marine safety consultant. Tr. 214:20-215:9. Wahl 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.” Ex. 1 at 8. Wahl further opined that “[o]nly highly experienced persons should be aboard for these events.” Id. Based on his review of the evidence, Wahl testified that “there appeared to be a lot of people” on the Celadon, and that “safe places . . . were probably a little bit difficult to find.” Tr. 220:1-9.

         4. Wahl opined that Lesniak, who had captained hundreds of races, became “complacent” by delegating the “safety orientation” for guests to crew members. Tr. 225:9-226:3.

         5. Wahl testified that when a boat race begins, “[t]here's some very dangerous places to be on board the boat . . . [a]nd it's certainly not a safe place to be right near the main sheet.” Tr. 221:10-13. Accordingly, Ray, who was seated on the deck of the boat near the main sheet, was in a dangerous position. Tr. 222:1-6.

         6. Specifically, Wahl opined that “[m]oving isn't quite enough” “when somebody doesn't know anything about a sailboat, because they don't know where to move to.” Tr. 223:23-25. The proper procedure for a crew member to ensure that Ray was moved safely to another area of the boat was for Lesniak or a crew member to physically ensure that she had been moved to a safer place. Tr. 226:14-227:16. Simply telling a novice passenger like Ray who had never been on a sailboat to move was insufficient, and a breach of safety protocol. Tr. 227:9-21.

         7. Wahl further opined that it was in contravention of boat safety protocol for Lesniak to gybe while Ray was sitting next to the main sheet, as gybing the boat necessarily causes a movement of the main sheet. Tr. 223:14-19. Wahl offered suggestions on what safety protocol Lesniak should have followed in that scenario, such as “[d]elay the gybe, get somebody to move that person, tell them where to sit, where the safe spot is.” Tr. 223:16-22. Lesniak did none of these things.

         8. When a captain changes the position of the sails, such as the gybe maneuver that Lesniak performed, Wahl testified that the captain “typically” will call out to the crew and let the crew members know that he will be changing the position of the sails. Tr. 238:16-239:4.

         C. ...

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