A Memorial Day collision on Lake Norman six years ago has led to a $5.75 million jury award for the rider of a personal watercraft who lost his leg.
Howard “Chip” Hazlett was injured on May 28, 2007, after his personal watercraft was rammed by one driven by Fred Gibb. Hazlett, according to court records, was flown to Carolinas Medical Center, where his left leg was amputated above the knee. He filed suit in 2011 against Gibb and Royce Syracuse, a Charlotte eye surgeon and the owner of both watercraft.
In 2007, Hazlett and Gibb, both from Long Island, N.Y., were visiting the lake as part of a family holiday weekend at Syracuse’s lake home. At the time, Hazlett was dating Syracuse’s sister. Gibb was engaged to the Syracuses’ cousin.
On Memorial Day afternoon, both men borrowed personal watercraft owned by their host.
Hazlett’s attorney, John Jensen of Chapel Hill, said his client had experience around water and personal watercraft. But Gibb, he said, took the first boat ride of his life only hours before the accident.
Gibb had never driven a personal watercraft, court records indicate. That afternoon, Syracuse gave Gibb some pointers during a 10-minute ride on his 800-pound, 185-horsepower Sea-Doo Bombardier. Syracuse then got off and gave Gibb the controls, court records say.
Gibb and Hazlett took off down the lake. The accident occurred around 2 p.m. in a cove with no other watercraft around. Hazlett, according to Jensen, was doing some figure eights and other maneuvers; Gibb made several runs up and down the cove.
On Gibb’s last pass, his craft crashed into Hazlett’s, crushing his leg, Jensen said. According to court records, Gibb suffered a broken leg. Neither man had been drinking, Jensen said.
In his suit, Hazlett accused Gibb of negligence and Syracuse of “negligent entrustment” by turning over his Sea-Doo to someone not qualified or properly trained to drive it.
The three-week trial before Mecklenburg Superior Court Judge William Constangy ended Aug. 23. In closing arguments, Jensen asked for $3.12 million in damages. The jury came back instead with $5 million plus interest accrued since the suit was filed. That brought the overall figure to $5.75 million.
Syracuse was cleared of all liability. He did not return a phone call seeking comment. His attorney, Stephen Thomas of Hickory, said by email that he was pleased with the verdict because Syracuse “did nothing wrong.”
Gibb could not be reached for comment in New York. His attorney, Kent Hamrick of Winston-Salem, said he could not discuss the case.
‘Jumping on a motorcycle’
Over the last four decades, personal watercraft have become a popular – and controversial – part of the lake scene in Charlotte and around the country. North Carolina requires people ages 14 to 25 to pass a boater-safety course before driving one. But the combination of speed and maneuverability make them highly popular with all ages.
As their presence has increased, so have the accidents in which they are involved. A federal report says 90 percent of personal watercraft mishaps stem from operator error.
“It’s no different than jumping on a motorcycle if you don’t know what you’re doing,” said Bob Elliott, assistant director of the Lake Norman Marine Commission.
From 1990-97, when the U.S. Coast Guard said ownership of the watercraft rose nationally by about 300 percent, accidents and fatalities increased by about the same rate.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board, more than 26 percent of all personal watercraft accidents are caused by reckless driving. Almost a quarter of the operators involved in accidents said they had driven a personal watercraft only one other time or not at all.
In 2012, 23 people died in N.C. boating accidents, according to the state Wildlife Commission. Three of those deaths involved personal watercraft. The watercraft were linked to almost 20 percent of the state’s nonfatal boating accidents.
In June on Lake Norman, a 9-year-old Arizona boy died after the watercraft upon which he was riding was struck from behind by the one following it.
The accident took place on the Catawba County portion of the lake, in the general vicinity of where, six years earlier, Hazlett lost his leg.
Settlement attempt failed
The Hazlett case went to the jury after several settlement efforts failed.
Jensen said his client’s medical expenses exceeded $380,000. State Farm, which carried the insurance on Syracuse’s watercraft, offered a $35,000 settlement before the trial. A month out, the offer rose to $100,000, Jensen said, then to $350,000 on the opening day of testimony.
“We basically said, ‘You know what, we’ll take $550,000,’” Jensen said. “They said $350,000, and the offer expired at midnight.”
According to court records, after the accident Hazlett became engaged to Syracuse’s sister. Eventually, the couple broke up.
Jensen said the stress of the lawsuit was a factor.
Researcher Maria David contributed.