Nearly three years after a powerful thunderstorm struck sailboats participating in the annual Dauphin Island Race — capsizing 10 boats and killing six sailors — the widow of 71-year-old victim J.C. Brown is suing Fairhope Yacht Club, the race’s 2015 organizer.
In a complaint filed in federal court today, Jane Brown argues FYC ignored repeated weather warnings and caved to sponsorships rather than cancel the race. Furthermore, it claims race organizers failed to provide immediate aid to distressed sailors. Brown is seeking in excess of $1.5 million in damages for wrongful death, gross negligence and failure to provide assistance at sea.
The plaintiff argues FYC is responsible for Brown’s death because it held a U.S. Coast Guard permit for the race. The permit was awarded with instructions including FYC “must be constantly aware of weather forecasts and conditions so that unsafe conditions can be identified and responded to, including termination of the event if necessary to ensure safety of all participants.”
Brown states that FYC did not provide a sufficient number of support or rescue vessels pursuant to its USCG license.
The complaint notes that in response to National Weather Service warnings issued as early as 3:48 a.m. on the morning of the race, FYC actually posted a cancellation notice on its website at 7:44 a.m. The notice “was removed at the direction of the Yacht Club at about 8:10 a.m.”
The race was originally scheduled to begin at 9:30 a.m., but due to the weather, organizers postponed it until 11 a.m.. The race began with 476 sailors on board 117 boats.
Between 11 a.m. and 3:10 p.m. — when a storm with recorded gusts of as much as 73 MPH reached Mobile Bay — at least four more weather alerts were issued. The complaint does not state if any of those warnings were related to participants.
“As a result of the delays, most of the boats in the race we still in Mobile Bay at 3:10 p.m.,” the complaint reads.
Additionally, Brown argues Principal Race Officer Anne Fitzpatrick and Race Committee Co-Chairman John Hirsch, who were stationed near the finish line with at least eight other people in a 48-foot motor yacht, “chose not to participate in any rescue efforts” until nearly two hours after the storm had passed. Neither Fitzpatrick nor Hirsch are named as defendants in the lawsuit.
J.C. Brown’s body was never recovered. Also killed were Kristopher Beall, 27, of Pineville, Louisiana; Adam Clark, 17, of Mobile; Robert Delaney, 72, of Madison, Mississippi; William Glenn Massey, 67, of Daphne; and Robert Thomas, 50, of Pickens, Mississippi.
The lawsuit was almost identical to one filed in Mobile County Circuit Court in 2016 by representatives of victim Robert Thomas. In its answer to that complaint, FYC denied all charges and listed 35 affirmative defenses. That trial is tentatively scheduled for April 16.
Meanwhile, the 60th annual Dauphin Island Race is scheduled for April 28.
Photo of the 2014 Dauphin Island Race by Sam St. John/flythecoast.com.