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Operator in fatal boat crash plans to file $30M suit against Southold Town

The man who was operating a 39-foot Cobalt boat that struck a bulkhead in Mattituck last fall, injuring two passengers and killing a third, is planning to sue Southold Town for $30 million for negligence and defamation of character, according to a notice of claim filed with the Town Clerk Feb. 7.

In the notice of claim, which is a precursor to a lawsuit, Frank Distefano, 48, of East Northport alleges that the town “negligently maintained or failed to maintain the navigation aids, buoys and marine markers at or about the entrance to James Creek” in Mattituck and that, by doing so, they did not adhere to guidelines set forth by the U.S. Coast Guard. According to the claim, his boat ran aground while he was searching for buoys and navigational aids at the entrance to the creek.

Southold police initially responded to the scene near Old Salt Road at about 9:17 p.m. Nov. 10, after the boat slammed into the bulkhead fronting Great Peconic Bay. The vessel was approximately 150 feet from the shoreline with four people aboard when first responders arrived, police said.

The crash claimed the life of 27-year-old Kelley Blanchard of Riverhead and injured Mr. Distefano and his passengers Nicholas Soullas, 41, of Jamesport and Ms. Blanchard’s sister Megan, 29, of New Suffolk.

Police arrested Mr. Distefano and charged him with misdemeanor boating while intoxicated — a charge that was dismissed after a toxicology report showed Mr. Distefano did not have a blood alcohol content above the legal threshold to warrant a criminal charge, according to the Suffolk County District Attorney’s office. The DA’s office said at the time that the crash remains under criminal investigation.

The claim, filed by attorney Frank Blangiardo of Cutchogue, further alleges that “the Town of Southold, through its Police Department made libelous, false statements … suggesting [Mr. Distefano] was involved in a serious crime.”

A copy of the toxicology report provided by Mr. Blangiardo noted “ethanol not detected.”

He is seeking punitive damages for fractures, head, neck and back injuries, mental anguish, loss of earnings, false arrest, wrongful prosecution and publication of false statements “with reckless disregard for claimant’s reputation,” the document states.

Records also show that Mr. Blangiardo submitted a second notice of claim to the town on behalf of passenger Nicholas Soullas, who cited serious head and neck injuries and a shattered pelvis as injuries sustained, in addition to loss of earnings and mental anguish. That claim is for $25 million, according to a copy provided by Mr. Blangiardo.

Megan Blanchard has also indicated she will file a $25 million suit against the town, according to a separate notice of claim filed Feb. 5 by her attorney, former Southold Town justice Brian Hughes.

Her claim indicates that the town “failed to notify, advise, or warn mariners and the general public of the removal of [navigational aids],” which caused or contributed to her hand, back and leg injuries that required surgery, as well as loss of earnings and mental anguish. Mr. Hughes did not respond to a request for comment Friday.

Town attorney Bill Duffy confirmed the claims had been filed and said his office is in the “early stages” of investigating.

“We’re still researching whether we have any liability” with regard to James Creek and the placement of navigational aids, he said in an interview Friday afternoon. “We don’t have an answer to that yet, but we have insurance and we expect to defend the case.”

Following standard depositions and what’s known as a 50-h hearing, the claimants have one year to file a formal lawsuit with the town.

Mr. Duffy vehemently opposed allegations of defamation. 

“The police acted appropriately and I’m sure they will be cleared of any wrongdoing,” he said.