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Family sues over death on whale tour

January 6, 2004

By Karen Blakeman, ADVERTISER STAFF WRITER

Lawyer says captain violated safety rule

The family of a 3-year-old boy killed Christmas Day while whale watching filed a lawsuit yesterday against the boat's captain and owners.

The parents and grandparents of Ryker Hamilton of Norfolk, Va., say the boy's death aboard The American Dream was the result of negligence by the boat's captain and by Dream Cruises Hawaii, the company that operates the whale-watching cruises.

The Circuit Court lawsuit asks for an amount of money to be decided at trial.

Mike Watson, president and co-owner of Dream Cruises, said yesterday that his company and crew are cooperating with a Coast Guard investigation into the incident, and that he felt confident the final report would find no wrongdoing on the part of either the company or crew.

Rick Fried Jr., the lawyer representing the family, said yesterday that the family contends the boat's captain saw a whale from several hundred yards away and headed toward it.

The captain did not stop the boat upon reaching the 100-yard safety limit established by the Marine Mammal Protection Act, he said.

As the boat drew close to the whale, Fried says, the captain dropped a hand-held microphone and reached down to grab it. He straightened, saw the whale, said: "Uh-oh," and the boat collided with it.

Ryan Hamilton, the boy's father, was holding Ryker. The older Hamilton was knocked backward, then forward. The child flew forward and his head struck the rail. He was killed almost immediately.

The boy's mother and his grandparents were also aboard.

Fried said his version of what precipitated the collision comes from interviews from witnesses aboard the boat, including members of the Hamilton family. Some of the witnesses took still photographs, and one was videotaping the voyage.

Watson said the Christmas Day incident was not negligence but a tragic accident a first, he said, and hopefully the last for Dream Cruises.

He said he felt terrible for the family, but resented Fried's two recent press conferences.

"This poor family lost their 3-year-old," he said. "Their only child. I can't even imagine.

"I have kids at home. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it.

"But this legal mumbo jumbo, that is something else."

Watson said crew members who were aboard the boat were having difficulties coming to grips with the tragedy.

Fried's version of the events of Christmas Day, Watson said, constitutes "a fabulous story."

"It's a good thing the U.S. Coast Guard is holding an investigation," he said. "They will release a report and then none of us will have to attend press conferences to hear attorneys' versions of it."

A preliminary report by the Coast Guard, released the day after the accident, found no wrongdoing on behalf of the company or crew.

Coast Guard Lt. Cmdr. Todd Offutt said the final Coast Guard investigation was not complete, and he had no estimates of how much longer the investigation would take.

Fried said he was disappointed that Dream Cruises and the company's insurance carrier had not agreed to negotiate a settlement in the case, calling it an indication that Watson was not taking responsibility for his company's actions.

Watson said he thought it was appropriate to wait until the Coast Guard had completed its investigation.