Lawsuit filed in 2011 death of powerboat racer

Wednesday, November 13, 2013 | 4:43 p.m. CST

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — A wrongful death lawsuit has been filed against the organizer of a championship offshore powerboat race in Key West, where three racers died in 2011.

The uncle of Jeffrey Tillman filed the lawsuit last week in Broward County Circuit Court. Tillman of Kaiser, Mo., and Robert Morgan of Sunrise Beach, Mo., died when their 46-foot catamaran — Big Thunder Marine — did a reverse flip and violently crashed inside Key West Harbor in front of thousands of fans.

The lawsuit names Super Boat International Productions Inc. and its president, John Carbonell, along with four other race officials as defendants.

Another lawsuit filed by the family Joey Gratton of Sarasota, Fla.,  who died in a separate incident during the same championship, already is pending against the same defendants. Messages left Wednesday for the attorney representing Carbonell and the others in that lawsuit were not immediately returned.

According to the lawsuit filed Thursday by William Tillman, which seeks more than $15,000 in damages, the defendants' rescue effort was improperly equipped, poorly coordinated and took too long to pull Jeffrey Tillman from the overturned catamaran, resulting in his drowning.

The lawsuit also notes that Morgan was 74 years old and had a history of heart problems. It says that Carbonell's company certified Morgan's participation in the races without proof that he could meet the medical and safety requirements.

It also says that race officials knew that Tillman and Morgan's catamaran did not meet industry safety standards for its canopy and cockpit system.

Gratton died after his 38-foot Superboat 850-class catamaran, Page Motorsports, rolled over twice and partially sank. Gratton's racing partner, Stephen Page of Fort Myers, Fla., survived with only minor injuries.

The Key West Citizen reports that the deaths of Tillman, Morgan and Gratton were ruled accidental by medical examiners, and no criminal charges were filed.

The 2012 Key West World Championship ended without any major injuries. The previous year's deaths prompted additional safety measures, including requiring canopy boat-equipped race teams to develop and share exit strategies with race officials.

This year's championship ended Sunday.

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