Settlement Reached in Lake Michigan Boating Lawsuit

Lake Michigan

3 killed, 1 injured after boat sinks following mechanical failure

Attorneys Timothy G. Martin and Robert J. Cooney Jr. of Cooney & Conway have settled a multi-million-dollar lawsuit on behalf of their client who died in a Lake Michigan boating incident in May, 2014. The catastrophic failure of a gimbal bearing allowed water to infiltrate the engine compartment, sinking the boat in approximately 10 minutes. Martin and Cooney argued that this failure caused their client to die in the frigid waters of Lake Michigan.

“Axess,” owned by our client, was a 31-foot Rinker outfitted with Mercury engines that was part of a fractional ownership program run by SailTime Chicago.

“As part of a contract with our client, SailTime was responsible for maintaining “Axess” in seaworthy condition,” Martin said. “SailTime lacked the resources to do so, and instead relied upon Skyway Yacht Works to perform work that Skyway was unqualified to do. The failure to adequately and properly maintain our client’s boat, resulted in the tragic and unnecessary loss of life.”

Boating Trip Turns Deadly for Friends After Mechanical Failure 

The boat's owner grew up outside Cleveland and moved to Chicago to work as a financial analyst and trader in 2007. On May 31, 2014, he invited three friends for a relaxing day trip across Lake Michigan aboard “Axess.” The group arrived in New Buffalo, Michigan, without incident and spent time relaxing on his boat, walking around town, and dining at a local restaurant.

As they approached Chicago on their return trip, a clanking noise was heard and shortly thereafter, the engines failed, and the boat came to an abrupt stop. As they inspected the boat, the high-water alarm sounded, and steam was observed coming out of the engine compartment. They quickly discovered the boat was taking on water. The boat's owner and his guests quickly went to work; he and a guest began bailing water, while another guest deployed emergency flares, and the fourth attempted to call for help using the radio system. As they came to the realization that the boat was going to sink, they knew they needed to abandon it. They put on life vests, gathered up flotation cushions, and jumped into Lake Michigan’s 53-degree water. “Axess” sank within minutes. As darkness approached, the four became separated in the water. After suffering through a harrowing night, a male victim was found disoriented and hypothermic around 6 a.m. by a charter boat captain. He was the only survivor.

After an exhaustive search, “Axess” was found seven miles off of Burnham Harbor resting 50 feet below the surface of Lake Michigan. At our client’s request, it was raised on August 31, 2014, in order to determine how and why this terrible tragedy occurred, according to Martin.

Gimbal Bearing Not Replaced After 2012 Grounding Divers found "Axess" 50 feet below the Lake Michigan surface.

Inspections of the vessel by several experts determined that the boat sank because of a catastrophic failure of the port side gimbal bearing. The gimbal bearing is an essential component to the overall function of a boat as it creates a watertight seal around the area where the drive shaft enters the boat through the transom assembly. It works to ensure that the portion of the propulsion system outside the boat can connect to the engine inside of the boat’s engine room without allowing water to enter the boat.

After extensive discovery, Martin and Cooney learned that “Axess” was run aground by another SailTime Chicago member two years earlier. The boat was taken to Skyway Yacht Works for inspection and repairs. The repairs performed by Skyway were inadequate and did not include replacement of the port side gimbal bearing. The product safety manager for Mercury Marine, the engine company, stated that the safest and most prudent response would have been for Skyway to replace the transom assembly and its components, including the gimbal bearing. The plaintiffs’ expert witness stated that if Skyway had replaced the port side transom assembly and gimbal bearing, the sinking of the “Axess” would not have occured. 

Additional mistakes were made along the way, including prior to the sinking, the failure by Skyway to properly inspect and maintain the boat as requested by SailTime.

"Had appropriate service work been performed,  this tragedy would not have occurred," said Cooney. "As a result, three people drowned and one person survived after a terrible ordeal."

“While we’re pleased with the outcome of this case, we know that the families and the survivor have a long road ahead of them for closure and recovery,” Martin said.

Days before trial, a $27.9 million settlement was reached on behalf of the plaintiffs.

Cooney & Conway: Chicago Boat Accident Attorneys

Cooney & Conway has extensive experience in representing victims of serious personal injury and wrongful death under maritime law. Previous cases have included pleasure boat collisions, Jones Act cases, and significant maritime disasters. For more information, call toll free 1-800-322-5573 or simply fill out the contact information form and a knowledgeable legal representative will respond shortly to your inquiry.