The family of famed Canadian conservationist Rob Stewart is preparing to file a wrongful death lawsuit against several companies and individuals involved in a late January underwater film shoot off Islamorada that proved fatal for the Toronto documentary filmmaker.
Among the targets of the suit, expected to be filed in Broward County Circuit Court Tuesday morning, is Peter Sotis, a well-known figure in the rebreathing deep-sea diving community who was with Stewart when the two men surfaced after a 225-feet deep dive on the wreck of the Queen of Nassau Jan. 31. They were using rebreather equipment from Sotis’ company, Add Helium, during the dives.
Add Helium is also expected to be named in the suit, according to a press release issued Monday by the Haggard Law Firm, the Coral Gables-based firm hired by Stewart’s family.
Sotis has a history of legal issues, including being one of four defendants to plead guilty in a $300,000 jewelry heist in Fort Myers in 1991, a conviction that resulted in Sotis serving nearly three years in federal prison, according to press reports from the time. His latest legal troubles include a lawsuit filed by his former business partner in which he’s accused, among other things, of selling military-grade scuba gear to a Libyan militant last August, and selling non-certified compressed air tanks to the company’s customers.
His lawyer, Raymond Robin, could not immediately be reached for comment.
“When you learn more about these defendants and the history of negligent behavior by people like Mr. Sotis, you come to realize this was a preventable tragedy that was going to happen to someone,” Michael Haggard, of the Haggard Law Firm, said in a statement issued Monday. Haggard scheduled a press conference at his Coral Gables office for 10:45 a.m. Tuesday morning, where he is expected to detail the lawsuit and name others being sued.
When Stewart and Sotis surfaced that afternoon, Sotis appeared to have breathing difficulties, and the crew of the dive boat Pisces rushed him on board.
When they turned around to retrieve Stewart, he was gone. Three days later, after a massive, multi-agency, 6,000 square-mile search, divers with the Key Largo Volunteer Fire Department located his body more than 220 feet below the waves, about 300 feet from where he was last seen on the surface. He was 37.
United States Coast Guard Capt. Jefferey Janszen said during a Feb. 3 press conference announcing the end of his agency’s search for Stewart that Sotis was given oxygen by the Pisces crew and declined further treatment. Stewart’s body was found less than an hour after the search was called off.
The men were on their third dive that day filming the next installment of Stewart’s Sharkwater documentary series about the importance of shark conservation. The Queen of Nassau wreck is near Alligator Reef, about 6 miles off Islamorada.
Deep-sea diving using rebreathers is risky, but three such dives in one day is considered pushing the envelope, even among many of the most experienced divers. Using rebreathers, as opposed to conventional compressed air tanks, allows for longer dives because the diver uses his or her own air that is recirculated and scrubbed of carbon dioxide.
“The Stewart family hopes the legal action will push out and/or change the ways of all irresponsibly operating diving businesses and help keep attention on Stewart’s mission of ocean conservation,” Haggard’s law firm stated.