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Federal lawsuit filed against Southport Marina after sticking boat owners with Isaias-related repair costs

Updated: Jun. 15, 2021 at 1:01 PM EDT
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SOUTHPORT, N.C. (WECT) - Getting hit by Hurricane Isaias was bad enough for boat owners moored at the Southport Marina, with more than 100 boats damaged and nowhere to store their vessels, but the owners received notices from the marina that they would be responsible for paying for damages to the docks. It was like salt on a wound, according to one owner.

With bills ranging from around $8,000 to more than $20,000, the marina is expecting boat owners to pay for the damages incurred to the docks, which was in the millions. But boat owners’ insurance companies are pushing back and have filed a federal lawsuit against Southport Marina.

The lawsuit, filed on behalf of more than 100 boat owners, claims that the marina’s arguments don’t hold water and that the docks were not maintained properly, causing boat owners thousands in damages themselves.

“Evidently eager to find a source of money to fund the cost of rebuilding its own uninsured and badly compromised failed dock system—and despite the failure of that system’s piers and docks causing well over a million dollars in damage to the boats that had been moored at the Marina at the time of the Storm—by early 2021 the Marina had determined to blame its own customers (the owners of the very same boats its failed piers and docks had damaged) for the failure of its piers and docks,” according to the lawsuit.

John Geddie, a former boat owner at Southport Marina, had ridden out several storms at the marina in the past and didn’t expect this time to be any different.

“All the boats were double tied, in some cases triple tied. We should have rode it out easily, especially since it was a small hurricane,” he said.

Lease agreements

Each person who kept their boat at the marina was required to sign an agreement that held them responsible for damages to the docks caused by their boats.

“In a nutshell, the lease agreement for a slip there has language that goes something like this... that you are required to safely moor your boat. And then it says you are responsible for any damage caused by your boat,” Geddie said.

That’s because the marina did not insure its own property, but instead, relied on the boat owners’ insurance.

“Despite its piers and docks being among its most valuable assets and the mechanism by which it generated a substantial amount of its revenue, on information and belief, the Marina neglected to purchase property insurance for all of those structures other than its fuel dock,” according to the lawsuit.

Despite the lease agreements, the plaintiffs argue that they are not responsible for the damages to the docks due to the fact that the piers themselves failed and it was not due to boat owners failing to secure their vessels.

“As a direct result of the failure of the Marina’s piers and docks, most of the floating piers and docks, with vessels still attached to them, had floated free and been blown downwind onto one another and the vessels attached to the downwind docks, piling up against the marina’s shoreline bulkhead. Others of the Marina’s piers floated free and, dragging the vessels still moored to them, ended up in other areas of the Marina’s basin, or were blown into marshland in the vicinity of Cottage Creek,” according to the suit.

Geddie, who happens to be a retired maritime attorney, said the language of the contract and the way the marina is applying the wording don’t add up.

“So they’re saying, ‘your boat caused damage, it says here if your boat causes damage, you’ll be responsible for it.’ Well, that’s kind of a Pollyanna view, that completely forgets this other part about you’re supposed to safely moor your boat,” he said.

The wording in the lease agreement reads, “Licensee shall ... Make arrangements for the safe mooring or the removal of the vessel on the approach of a storm and be responsible for the costs to repair of any damage caused by the vessel to the marina docks, pilings, and/or other boats ...”

According to the suit, the majority of boats that had been at the marina remained secured to the docks that were damaged, and Geddie argues that means that owners had taken measures to ensure the safe mooring of their boats.

Another sticking point for the lawsuit is the fact that there is no way to know which boat caused what sort of damages.

“Each Slip Holder was sent a notice demanding payment based on the length of their vessel, which ranges from demands of approximately $8,500 to demands over $25,000. No information was provided to each individual Slip Holder as to exactly what damage was caused by their vessel. Despite requests on behalf of each individual Slip Holder, the Marina has yet to specify the damage that was caused by any individual vessel belonging to any of the Slip Holders,” according to the suit.

The attorneys argue that because of this, the marina has no way of knowing which vessel caused what damage — if they were in fact responsible for the damages.

“The Marina’s justification for sending its Demand Package to the Slip Holders appears to be that their respective boats were present in the Marina’s basin when its piers and docks failed and, therefore, they should pay for the repair of those piers and docks, despite the Marina’s evident inability to prove that any of the Slip Holder’s boats was itself responsible for any of the damage or expenses for which that Slip Holder is being charged,” according to the suit.

Ultimately, Geddie says he is confident in the case against the marina and thinks the judge will side with them.

“What I want to see happen is the court says ‘this is the silliest claim I have ever seen - in fact, it’s not a claim you’re thrown out of court’ ... This is a declaratory judgment action they’re asking a judge to say basically just that,” Geddie said.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs responded to WECT but did not want to go on record making statements about the merits of the case - instead - they plan on doing that in court.

A representative for the marina, Robin Rose, issued the following statement.

“Our Marina was destroyed to the tune of $5+ million dollars because the boats were in the Marina. The Marina would have been OK if the boats had not been there. Now that we have been sued, we look forward to the Court reviewing and analyzing the facts of this case and the law that applies.”

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