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Oh, the humanity: Two luxury yacht passengers sue for $10 million

6 minute read

(Reuters) - Personal injury plaintiffs are supposed to be sympathetic. We should feel bad for the injuries they've suffered and want to compensate them accordingly. At least their lawyers hope so.

And then there are the two passengers on a luxury private yacht who filed a $10 million lawsuit in federal court in Florida stemming from their Bahamas voyage in late December.

Your heart is breaking already, no?

Their gripes include having to ask a crew member three times for sugar and an "odorous, ill-tempered" captain.

Let's just say some grievances strike me as better suited to a one-star Yelp review than a federal lawsuit.

Plaintiffs Sharilyne Anderson and Vera Melnyk are, respectively, the girlfriend and mother of Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk, according to CBC News in Canada. The hockey team owner, who is a not a party to the suit, shelled out $500,000 to charter the 197-foot superyacht Dream from Dec. 22 to Jan. 1, CBC reported.

"The lawsuit is before the courts and I will not be commenting on it," Eugene Melnyk said in a statement provided by the Senators press office.

Matthew Valcourt of Valcourt and Associates, who represents the plaintiffs, did not respond to a request for comment.

The yacht has its own website – and the vessel looks spectacular, with a "Zen interior of sophisticated and comfortable elegance," six staterooms, a sky lounge that converts into an outdoor cinema and "exquisite meals prepared by our professional chefs."

Fun, right? But, alas, even luxury yacht passengers can get seasick.

Much of the complaint – perhaps because the ocean itself can't be sued – focuses on the captain's decision to take an open Atlantic route from Nassau to Eleuthera island.

The passengers told the captain that they wanted to travel via a basin route inside the island chains where the water is calmer, but that the captain “appeared angry and resentful” that they “would deem to intrude on his alleged specialized knowledge, experience, and authority,” according to the complaint, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida.

The plaintiffs alleged that the captain then sought “to punish the charterer and his party for their insolence through intentionally piloting the yacht into the open ocean.”

The result, they said, was “hours upon hours of waves pummeling the yacht” that triggered severe vomiting, vertigo, anxiety and fear that the boat would capsize or sink.

That certainly sounds unpleasant. And per the terms of the charter, the captain was obligated to follow “all reasonable orders” by the person who hired the boat regarding the itinerary.

So was the captain out to get revenge on pushy landlubbers by making them seasick? Or did he have a valid reason for the route he chose?

The complaint acknowledges that the captain “stated the draft of the boat was too deep to safely navigate the basin route,” but claims that with the aid of a specialized pilot, it could have been done.

Christopher Fertig of Fertig & Gramling, who represents the defendants, is skeptical.

The yacht requires water that is at least 16 feet deep, he explained in an email, supplying a nautical chart that shows the water in many places along the basin route is much shallower.

“So, the issue comes down to the decision by a professional captain of either taking a risky trip over a shallow bank with the risk of grounding versus going the safe seaward route,” he wrote. “The captain chose to be safe.”

Moreover, he added, at nearly 200 feet long and more than 1,000 tons, the yacht is designed to handle conditions “far more extreme” than what the plaintiffs encountered on their voyage. The boat was never in any danger of sinking.

Still, rather than endure the repeat open-ocean route back to Nassau at the end of the trip, the plaintiffs asked to be let off at another island.

The captain refused. Despite what the plaintiffs deemed were “completely manageable mooring and landing condition,” the captain said the water was too rough for all passengers to disembark safely.

That meant the passengers were stuck on board for another 15 hours of rough sailing back to Nassau. For this, the plaintiffs assert one count of false imprisonment along with negligence and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Fertig in a motion to dismiss filed on Monday argued the suit has no merit.

“The captain has an absolute nondelegable duty to provide for the safety of its passengers and crew,” he wrote. “This matter is no different than an airplane pilot diverting to a different airport due to weather. Those on board the plane may disagree with the decision, but no amount of magic words can transform the decision into an intentional tort.”

Based on the complaint, the whole trip sounds like a nightmare – a “harrowing and destructive voyage” filled with “needless pain and injury suffered at the hands of a punitive captain” as the plaintiffs put it.

But any twinges of sympathy are undermined by what Fertig said are entries in the yacht's guestbook – he supplied photos – on the last day of the trip by other members of the Melnyk party.

“Thank you so much for a great trip,” wrote two passengers. “Great views, great food, great staff.”

“You guys are all awesome!” another couple wrote. “We had a wonderful time and we hope that our paths will cross again.”

“New Years was a great time. The decorations were absolutely gorgeous!” stated a third Meynyk party entry. “This was an amazing way to start the New Year.”

Good luck persuading a jury that two of the guests should also get $10 million in compensation for the experience.

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