Boat operator in fatal Mattituck crash seeks to limit liability

The operator of a boat involved in a 2019 crash that killed a Riverhead woman is petitioning in federal court for exoneration from liability from claims in the crash, according to court documents filed April 12.

Francesco Distefano of East Northport, through his attorneys at Rubin, Fiorella, Friedman & Mercante, is seeking to invoke what’s known as the Limitation of Liability Act, which allows vessel owners to limit liability owed to injured parties to the value of the vessel.

The law, which dates back to the 1800s, has been used as a defense in cases including the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 and Staten Island Ferry crash in 2003, as well as recreational boating incidents.

Mr. Distefano was operating a 39-foot powerboat that ran aground and struck a bulkhead near the entrance to James Creek in Mattituck in November 2019. Kelley Blanchard, 27, died in the crash. Mr. Distefano was injured along with the other passengers: Nicholas Soullas of Jamesport and Ms. Blanchard’s sister Megan, of New Suffolk. 

Mr. Distefano initially faced a boating while intoxicated charge that was ultimately dismissed after a toxicology report showed he did not have a blood alcohol content above the legal threshold to warrant a criminal charge.

Since the crash, Mr. Soullas and Megan Blanchard have each alleged in legal filings that Mr. Distefano was negligently operating and failed to control the boat, which led to personal injuries and damages.

“Any claims for loss, damage, injury and/or wrongful death arising from the incident were solely caused by the acts, omissions, and/or negligence of third-parties for whom petitioner is not responsible, and not due to any fault, neglect, or want of care on the part of petitioner,” the petition states. “If any fault caused or contributed to the claims for loss, damage, injury and/or wrongful death arising from the incident, which is denied, such fault, neglect, or want of care was occasioned and occurred without petitioner’s privity or knowledge. Petitioner acted reasonably under the circumstances,” it continues.

The filing notes that the vessel was “well maintained and equipped for the voyage,” at the time of the incident and asks the court to adjudge that Mr. Distefano is not liable for any claims for loss, damage, injury or wrongful death.

If found liable, the petition also seeks to limit Mr. Distefano’s liability to $40,000, determined to be the value of the boat after the crash, with interest at the rate of 6% per annum. Upon entering that agreement, he is also requesting the court issue an injunction to enjoin all legal claims stemming from the incident, except the current petition.

According to James Mercante, an attorney for Mr. Distefano, the value of the vessel was determined by an accredited marine surveyor who inspected the 39-foot Cobalt following the crash.

Earlier this year, Mr. Distefano filed a $30 million notice of claim against both Strong’s Marine and Southold Town, alleging that Strong’s Marine “negligently entrusted” the Cobalt to Mr. Distefano “without adequate training, guidance, support” related to piloting the boat and improperly installed a replacement engine and navigation system which created a “dangerous and defective condition” that they failed to warn Mr. Distefano about. 

The claim also said Southold Town was negligent in maintaining navigational aids, buoys and marine markers near the entrance to the creek.

“One of the issues is whether or not the buoys were removed without notice to the mariners,” Mr. Mercante said in an interview Thursday. “The buoys are situated to mark the entrance of a channel and if they’re removed and a mariner is detrimentally relying on the fact that they’re there, that is certainly a problematic issue that has to be explored.”

Both Strong’s Marine and Southold Town have denied any wrongdoing.

Mr. Soullas and Ms. Blanchard have both filed similar claims that also listed Mr. Distefano as a defendant.

According to the latest filing, the Eastern District Court of New York has jurisdiction over the proceeding since the incident involved a vessel operating upon the navigable waters of the United States.

“It was a tragic accident and everyone wishes it didn’t happen,” Mr. Mercante said. “It just demonstrates how dangerous the waterways can be.”