June 11, 1996
The suit says the crew ignored gale warnings and endangered passengers
By Linda Hosek Star-Bulletin
Minnesota residents Sylvia Bird and Margo Briese had never been out on an ocean before they stepped onto the round-bottomed Rella Mae for a sunset cruise on April 15, 1995.
Two hours later, Bird was in the emergency room for injuries she suffered when the boat rolled, causing her chair to break and pitching her head into the rail.
Briese, who crashed down several minutes later, suffered bruises and permanent nerve damage to her shoulder, forcing her to eventually lose her job as a nurse.
Paul Cronin, their attorney, has alleged that former owners Windjammer Cruises Inc. and Osceola Cruises Inc. negligently operated the boat on numerous occasions and should not have sailed with gale warnings in effect on the day of the incident.
"They knew problems existed and they knew people were getting injured and they never gave a warning to anyone," said Cronin, who added that the suit may have a negative effect on potential tourists worried about safety.
The case was to open today before U.S. District Judge Alan Kay, an hour before the Rella Mae was to receive a public blessing and the new name of "Kanaloa" by its new, Florida-based owners, Aces Dinner Cruises.
Robert Frame, the former owners' attorney, said the gale warnings were issued a half-hour after the Rella Mae left shore and that the forecasted conditions never occurred.
He said the weather included tradewinds at 15 knots with gusts to 25 knots. He also said most injuries occurred when the vessel turned and that the operators prepared passengers by ringing a bell and telling them to hang on if they experience motion.
"You're talking about an ocean," he said. "All boats move."
But Cronin said Bird and Briese were injured before the turn during rough conditions that overturned furniture, broke dinnerware and tossed people around the 50-year-old vessel intended for bays and rivers. The Rella Mae, licensed for 1,000 passengers and one of the state's largest dinner cruise operations, holds a current annual safety certificate from the U.S. Coast Guard.
At 220 feet long, it doesn't have an anti-roll device, which may add "a bit more motion that you might expect" for the service it's in, said Glenn Martineau, Coast Guard inspector.
He said the vessel, docked at Pier 7 near Aloha Tower, had 300 deficiencies in September. But he also said the owners would likely have cleared all by the end of the month, giving it a "clean bill of health." The vessel's certificate requires it to operate inside the line of demarcation from Kokohead to Barbers Point and within specific wind and swell conditions.
Cronin also represents a Honolulu couple, Bobby and Linda McBride, who booked the cruise to celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary. He said Bobby McBride suffered a broken wrist and Linda McBride hurt her back.
He also said the McBrides wondered about the windy conditions but were reassured the Rella Mae would sail when they called from their Waianae Coast home. Cronin said he would ask for general and punitive damages in the nonjury trial, arguing that the company knowingly disregarded dangers to passengers.
He said excerpts from the Rella Mae's log from April, 29, 1994, through May 10, 1995, indicated concerns about safety, comfort, scared passengers and the cruise's reputation in light of rough outings. Frame said what may have occurred during other sails was irrelevant. He also doubted that the suit would leave negative ripples in the tourist industry.
"These cases occur for virtually every operator on the waterfront," he said. Koen Witteveen, the new owner's executive vice president of operations, said the owner has begun interior renovations to improve safety and design.
He also said a study was under way to decrease ship movement and that the owners would add stabilizers this fall. "We want it to be the premier dinner cruise operator in Waikiki," he said.