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Dive Club Settlement Insufficient, Lawyer Says

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The 20 victims died on a dive expedition to Belize aboard the Wave Dancer, a 120-foot-long ship owned by Miami-based Peter Hughes Diving Inc. While moored in a cove to ride out Hurricane Iris, the boat was lifted up and smashed against a dock by 140-mph winds and 18-foot seas. It capsized, killing all but three of those aboard. The 10 club members aboard the expedition's other ship, the Belize Aggressor, survived.

Many claimants feel that receiving a share of the $4 million is insufficient recompense, Huggett says, "but there's no more money. You can't squeeze blood out of a turnip, or a stone."

The dive company's assets are held in international companies, he says, and the settlement would protect the dive company from further litigation. "It would be a very difficult fight."

Huggett says U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard in Miami ruled that in order to take the dive company to trial, plaintiffs would have to go to Belize to obtain a judgment in the case, then return to Miami.

Even if the suit were successful, he says, "it would be a Pyrrhic victory."

The first lawsuit was filed on Oct. 19 — 11 days after the disaster — by the family of Wave Dancer cook Eloisa Johnson-Hall. The family asked for $10 million, alleging in the suit that Peter Hughes, owner of the dive company and the Wave Dancer, "arrogantly and illegally ignored" government orders to evacuate the boat as the hurricane approached and failed to prepare those aboard for an emergency.

In November, the families of three more Richmond Dive Club members also filed wrongful-death suits. Now the four lawyers involved have decided mediation is the fairest way to divide the money. They decided to submit all testimony to retired Richmond Circuit Judge Robert L. Harris Sr. in document and video form, says Kenneth Paciocco, a Richmond lawyer who represents three survivors and three of the victims' families.

Not only would it be unnecessarily painful for the victims' families and the survivors to tell their stories one after the other, he says, but he didn't want to trivialize anyone's experience by having them appear last in a long teary line.

"What takes this case out of the ordinary is the incredible magnitude of the loss," Paciocco says. "It's the saddest thing I've ever dealt with."

— Melissa Scott Sinclair

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