United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Charleston Division
FINDINGS OF FACT AND CONCLUSIONS OF LAW
C. NORTON UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Lesniak testified that all of his crew members “[knew]
to look after new people.” Tr. 208:18-21.
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.
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.
Before May 21st, 2014, Ray had never been on a sailboat. Tr.
106:21-107:1. She knew nothing about how a sailboat worked.
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.
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.
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.
crew was aware of where Ray was sitting. Tr. 204:4-6.
Within 5-10 minutes of Ray stepping on board the Celadon, the
incident occurred. Tr. 194:2-5.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
was left with an abrasion on her forehead as a result of the
main sheet hitting her. Pl.'s Ex. 2.
After Ray was injured, Lesniak did not turn the boat around.
Tr. 117:5-12. Lesniak continued with the boat race. Tr.
Breach of Safety Protocol:
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.
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.
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.
opined that Lesniak, who had captained hundreds of races,
became “complacent” by delegating the
“safety orientation” for guests to crew members.
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.
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.
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.
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.