ALBANY, N.Y. - A federal judge dismissed liability claims Monday against a company that modified a tour boat 16 years before it capsized on Lake George, killing 20 passengers.
U.S. District Judge Thomas McAvoy said the court had no information about an old canvas-and metal-canopy once fitted on the Ethan Allen, so he was unable to determine if a replacement wooden canopy installed by Scarano Boat Building in 1989 made the vessel unstable.
The boat was used for tours on the Adirondack lake. It had been certified for a capacity of 50 people before any canopy was installed.
Ruling from the bench after listening to lawyers for relatives of the victims and for Scarano, Judge McAvoy said any conclusions about the replacement canopy would be conjecture.
"I don't like doing what I did for humanitarian reasons," Judge McAvoy said. "But I analyzed the law as best I could."
The 40-foot Ethan Allen carried 47 passengers and the captain when it suddenly tipped over in clear, sunny weather on Oct. 2, 2005, sending screaming tourists into the lake.
Nineteen of those killed were from Michigan, including Beverly Becker, 78, Virginia Ciesinski, 82, JoAnn Manore, 74, Joyce Rochowiak, 69, and Viola "Vi" Urbaniak, 89, all of Bedford Township. One was from Ohio: Wilma LeJeune, 78, of West Toledo.
James Hacker, lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said that claims continue against other parties.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board believe the boat was rocked by a wake from a passing vessel or multiple boats.
A grand jury heard conflicting testimony from survivors. Some said there was no wake; others said there were 6-to-8-inch waves.
The federal board concluded in 2006 that the boat was dangerously unstable because of structural changes over the years and should have carried fewer passengers, although it was certified to carry 48 passengers plus two crew. State and federal weight limits have since been modified.
Jeffrey Carton, representing Scarano, said photographic evidence showed the replacement canopy, made of light wood, was 15 inches lower than the structure it replaced, which would generally improve a boat's stability.
"The stability of a boat with a canopy is a function of the height and the weight," countered James Hacker, lead attorney for the plaintiffs.
"Common sense tells you replacing canvas with wood made it heavier and less stable," he said, adding that the so-called photographic evidence came from comparison with a picture of another boat's canvas canopy, not the old Ethan Allen's.
Judge McAvoy concluded it was the boat owner's duty to perform a stability test, which was not done.
"There is insufficient evidence to conclude it made the Ethan Allen less safe," he said of the modification.
Boat owner James Quirk settled claims last June against Shoreline Cruises Inc., its affiliate Quirks Marine Rentals, and boat captain Richard Paris. Shoreline continues to operate tour boats on Lake George.42.65144 -73.75526