Boat racing

Lawsuit filed two years after Key West tragedy

Two years after three powerboat racers were killed in the Key West World Championship, the family of one of the victims has filed a wrongful death lawsuit in Broward Circuit Court.

William Tillman, uncle and personal representative of the estate of Big Thunder driver Jeffrey “JT” Tillman of Missouri, sued Super Boat International Productions president John Carbonell and five members of his medical, safety and inspection team, alleging their “gross negligence” was responsible for the death. The filing came Nov. 7 during the 2013 World Championship that concludes Sunday.

Jeffrey Tillman, 46, drowned along with owner/throttleman Bob Morgan, 74, in November 2011 after their four-engine catamaran flipped backward and landed upside down in Key West Harbor during the first race of the series. The lawsuit, filed by Fort Lauderdale attorney William Scherer, accuses Carbonell and his medical and safety staff — Louis Pizano, Donald DiPetrillo, Brian Haff and David Harshfield — of a slow and poorly coordinated rescue effort that left Tillman trapped underwater in the wreckage for nine minutes before he was recovered. The suit alleges that rescuers wrongly assumed Tillman had been killed by blunt trauma in the crash and didn’t hustle to extricate him. The suit also faults chief race inspector William Livingston for allowing Big Thunder to compete even though the boat lacked safety features such as a reinforced cockpit and thru-hull escape hatch that might have prevented the deaths.

Three days after Morgan and Tillman died, a third racer, Joey Gratton of University Park, drowned after his boat flipped over in a turn, trapping him inside. His crewmate escaped with minor injuries. Gratton’s widow, Priscilla Gratton, sued race organizers in 2012, also in Broward Circuit Court. Her attorney, Michael Allweiss, said he expects the case to go to trial in February 2014.

Carbonell’s wife, Deana, vice president of Super Boat International Productions, said of the latest lawsuit: “We don’t know anything about it and if we did, we couldn’t talk about it.”

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