Attorneys for Canyonlands by Night and Day, a Moab company that offers boat tours of the Colorado River, has filed a lawsuit seeking to restrict victims of a Sept. 8, 2017 crash near The Portal from suing over damages related to the incident. The cause of the crash, which injured 17 of the 29 aboard, was determined by investigators to be due to a broken connector on the starboard engine.
The case, filed Dec. 19, 2017 in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City, is seeking to prevent or restrain possible claims from passengers on board that day. According to the case docket, attorneys for Canyonlands by Night and Day, which is operated by the family of Grand County Council Member Rory Paxman, is asking Judge David Nuffer to find the company not liable for any damages or injuries sustained during the crash. An alternative request by company attorneys states that if the court finds the company liable for damage or injuries, all awards be limited to the value of the jet boat involved in the crash, or $190,421.
The company also filed a proposed notice to any possible victims of the crash informing them that they have 30 days to file their own claims for loss or damage arising from the accident. Additionally, the suit alleges that any injuries suffered during the crash may have been a result of negligence on the part of the passengers.
Salt Lake City-based John Lund is one of the lead attorneys representing Canyonlands by Night and Day in the filing. He said the case is primarily a matter of consolidating all the possible claims into one court and one case — and obtaining a finding of no negligence on the part of the Paxman’s company.
“I’ve seen so many comments about this [online] and seen people’s concern over filing a lawsuit about this, but basically we’re using this process to make sure anybody who thinks they have a claim all have to come to the same court, instead of the many people on the boat filing separate cases or making separate claims elsewhere. We want this all to happen in one place, in the federal court in the district of Utah.” Lund said.
Our position is that [Canyonlands by Night and Day] didn’t do anything that was careless or would be grounds to say there was negligence. We suspect that we would demonstrate that in the court case. Obviously, if [an attorney] has a client that was injured in the accident and wants to make a claim, the whole point is that they get to come into court and seek that determination from a judge. It’s tragic what happened with that steering mechanism, but nobody had any reason to expect it. I’m sure it was scary to go through, but there was no negligence involved.”
When asked why the filing alleges “that the claimants were themselves negligent ...” Lund told The Times-Independent that the passengers may bear some of the responsibility for their own injuries. “Let’s say somebody stood up on that boat at the very last second before it crashed,” Lund said. “That would not have been a smart thing to do and if someone did that and it contributed to their own injury, they may have some responsibility for what happened to them.”
A total of 28 passengers and a guide were aboard the boat when it crashed into rocks on the east shore of the Colorado River, near Kane Creek Boulevard. An investigation by Utah State Parks and Recreation and National Park Service staff determined that a tie rod connecting the two jets on the 33-foot aluminum boat failed causing operator Courtney Atwood to lose positive control of the vessel. Nine of the passengers on the boat were transported to Moab Regional Hospital for treatment of injuries.
In an interview with The Times-Independent in September, Lt. Kim Neal of the Grand County Sheriff’s Office said that operator error was not to blame for the crash. High winds and choppy surface conditions were present at the time of the incident, which would have made the boat difficult to drive at best, given the condition of the jet, he said.
“I spoke with the [investigator] from the state park system that completed the inspection, and it was determined that the jet’s steering mechanism failed,” Lt. Neal said. “It was not operator error in any way, shape or form.”
According to a report from Utah State Parks and Recreation, the boat suffered heavy damage to the port side bow as a result of the crash and that the impact damage to the bow is “indicative of an impact with a solid object at speeds exceeding 25 mph.”
One passenger on the boat that day, U.K. resident Brian Morris, said his wife, Barbra Morris, was so seriously injured in the crash that no amount of recovery time would bring her back to full health.
“My wife was the person transferred to Grand Junction [at] St Mary’s, who also gave my wife and me excellent care,” Morris said in an October 2017 email to The Times-Independent. “My wife has a broken spine and was transferred to consider options for dealing with this. She is at present back in a U.K. hospital and it will take months rather than weeks for some form of recovery. At best she will never be as she was. I understand this is not the first time this company has been involved in river accidents of this nature. Surely that must ring alarm bells with someone over there and for us we will be taking further legal action.”
In September 2012, eight passengers sustained minor injuries after a Canyonlands by Night and Day tour boat struck a sandbar in the Colorado River west of Moab. A second jet boat sent to help evacuate the 30 passengers also struck a sandbar and ran aground, leaving that boat stranded on the sandbar overnight. The injuries occurred when the boat’s driver backed away from the sandbar. Most of the injuries involved minor scrapes and bruises, but one passenger’s leg was fractured, Neal told The Times-Independent in 2012.
In a Dec. 29, 2017 phone interview with The Times-Independent, Barbra Morris said she has been wearing a brace since receiving medical treatment in the United States, and that doctors have told her she might need to wear it for as long as 12 months.
In response to an email request for comment, company sales director Rachel Paxman told The Times-Independent, “Our insurance company hired the attorney to handle this incident. When we contacted them regarding the incident, they advised us to not respond to media or clients involved and to send all further inquiries to the attorney that was given the case.”