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Denver company denies installing nozzle on boat that exploded, killed teen

LINCOLNTON The vice president of a company that installed the fuel system in a marina where a boat exploded in 2008, killing 19-year-old Nate Coppick, testified on Friday his company didn’t install the nozzle on the fuel dispenser the victim was using to refill the vessel.

Wilson was the last defense witness called in the civil lawsuit against Petroleum Equipment and Service of Denver.

Coppick, who worked at the marina, was killed on June 10, 2008, while refueling an 80-foot charter boat. Suits against the marina owner and boat owner were settled out of court.

An attorney for the Coppick estate has told the court that the fuel nozzle hold-open latch that Coppick was using didn’t function properly and that at least 30 gallons of gas overflowed.

Wilson’s voice broke Friday as he described Coppick as “a very nice, hard-working young man.” While he felt “deeply saddened” by Coppick’s death, Wilson told the juror: “I do not feel responsible.”

Petroleum Equipment installed the fuel dispensing system in 1998. But Wilson said three years went by before the company started occasionally servicing the fuel equipment at Westport marina.

Wilson said that in 2005 the company sold the marina a nozzle identified as a standard model, according to records. Wilson said fuel nozzles typically last about a year and are then discarded.

In 2006, the company replaced five pressure-activated nozzles at Westport. Two years later, on June 10, 2008, the standard model nozzle turned up on the fuel dispenser used to refill the boat that exploded.

Wilson said Petroleum Equipment would not have installed a used nozzle and would have had a new one tested for leaks, fuel flow and shutoff.

Under cross-examination, Jason White, an attorney for the Coppick estate, asked Wilson: “Isn’t this the first time ever you’ve told anybody you didn’t install that nozzle?”

“Yes,” Wilson replied.

Lawyers spar

On Friday morning, a question about the key fuel nozzle led to defense attorney John Holden being lambasted by Superior Court Judge Forrest Bridges.

In the absence of the jury, Holden explained he wanted to authenticate a document from a company that manufactures nozzles. This was central to proving it was the wrong nozzle, Holden said. He contended the nozzle on the dispenser that refueled the boat that exploded had been taken off in 2006 and reinstalled on a land fuel dispenser, not at the marina.

“Somehow, over the years, it made its way (back) to where it ultimately ended up,” he said.

Holden planned a video conference in the courtroom, wanting to question a company executive in St. Louis.

Forrest Ferrell, attorney for the plaintiff, objected and said he’d never the seen the document. “This is totally an ambush…,” he said. “This is totally unfair.”

Bridges said the document had never been provided to the plaintiff and was another example of Holden’s “repeated evasion” in the discovery process. Calling Holden’s methods “gutter tactics,” Bridges said the lawyer could have tried the case in “an honest, forthcoming manner.”

“But he’s chosen not to do that,” said Bridges, who sustained the plaintiff’s objections.

Holden apologized and said “this is not an attempt to ambush.”

Boat owner testifies

Earlier testimony on Friday came from defense witness Cliff Champion, owner of the boat that exploded on June 10, 2008.

Champion said his charter boat had returned to the marina from carrying a group of high school students to a graduation party on Lake Norman.

Among the deck hands working for him was Nate Coppick. Champion said that although Coppick was a Westport employee “on occasion he worked for me when he was not busy on the marina.”

Champion said he was in the living room on the main lower deck of the boat with friends when the explosion occurred. He said the boat’s generator and air conditioning were running, but “I didn’t know anybody was fueling the boat.”

Champion testified that he hadn’t instructed anybody to refuel the vessel.

Under cross-examination by the plaintiff’s attorney, he denied telling an investigator at the time of the accident that the gas pump had been activated and that Coppick was refueling. Champion said he’d told Coppick to “pump the boat out, not fuel it up.”

Champion also said “we never fueled it up with people on the boat.”

Due to the unavailability of a courtroom early next week, court recessed until Wednesday when closing arguments are expected to begin.

DePriest: 704-868-7745
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