Parents sue boat captain over death of their son

Tuesday, January 6, 2004

By Rod Ohira, ADVERTISER STAFF WRITER

The 3-year-old boy died after an incident involving a whale

By Debra Barayuga

dbarayuga@starbulletin.com

The family of a 3-year-old boy killed in an accident aboard a whale-watching tour boat on Christmas Day has filed a lawsuit, faulting the captain in the death.

Three days after the memorial service in Norfolk, Va., for Ryker David-Lee Hamilton, his parents, Ryan Lee Hamilton and Renee Elizabeth Hamilton, of Norfolk, and grandparents Robert Hamilton Jr. and Sandra Hamilton, of Hawaii, filed suit in Circuit Court yesterday.

The suit was filed against Dream Cruises Inc., a California corporation; P. Michael Watson, president of Dream Cruises Hawaii; and Monroe Wightman, the captain of the boat.

The suit alleges that Wightman failed to maintain proper control of the American Dream, allowing the 100-foot tour boat to collide with a whale.

"From all the investigation we've done, this incident is purely the fault of the master for not paying attention to where they were," said Hamilton family attorney Rick Fried.

Watson said he had not received the lawsuit, but disputes that allegation.

The toddler and his parents and grandparents were among 75 crew and passengers on the American Dream when it left Kewalo Basin on Dec. 25. A half-hour into the cruise, the captain spotted a pod of humpback whales and was headed toward it when another pod surfaced in front of the boat.

According to Watson, the captain slowed and stopped the boat, but one of the whales apparently lifted its tail and swiped at the boat's left bow. U.S. Coast Guard officials said it was unclear whether the whale hit the boat, and its preliminary report said the crew acted appropriately.

Fried said the boat collided with the whale, causing the accident.

"I don't think there's any question about that. Every witness I've spoken to who was in a position to see has confirmed that," Fried said.

The boat struck the whale because the captain was not paying attention, Fried said.

"Had this boat not been going at a high rate of speed, it's highly unlikely the impact would have occurred."

Ryan Hamilton, who was holding his son, was jostled back on his heels, then forward, from the impact. When he went forward, the boy's head hit the top of a railing. The boy suffered fatal head and spinal injuries, Fried said.

About a half-dozen other passengers also fell but were not seriously hurt, he said.

Fried said the captain failed to follow federal regulations that require vessels to remain 100 yards away from whales.

Watson said the Coast Guard is conducting a full investigation.

"There's been a lot of different opinions bandied about what took place," he said, "and I can defer to the Coast Guard, and I certainly would be more satisfied with their conclusions than self-serving statements from a plaintiff's attorney."

The Coast Guard surveyed the boat and found no damage consistent with a collision involving a 150-ton boat and a 50-ton whale, Watson said.

Fried said they filed suit after making no progress during talks with the boat's insurer and attorneys.

The Coast Guard is continuing its investigation into the accident.