$125 Million Awarded in Weather Suit

Posted on August 13, 1985 at 10:52am by

By Joanne Ball
The Boston Globe
August 13, 1985
US District Court judge yesterday ordered the federal government to pay $1.25 million to the families of three lobstermen who died during a 1980 hurricane off Georges Bank which the government’s weather equipment failed to predict.

Judge Joseph Tauro’s award to the families followed his precedent-setting judgment of last December in which he found the US Weather Service and its parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, liable for the deaths because the federal service had not repaired a weather buoy used to forecast weather conditions.

The cash award was the first time the government was told to pay survivors whose relatives lost their lives as a result of faulty detecting equipment.

“We’re all very pleased,” said Boston attorney Michael Latti who filed the suit on behalf of the victims’ families. “We feel the damages awarded are based on the proof” of the government’s “carelessness and negligence in failing to maintain the weather buoy,” he said during a news conference in his office.

A spokesman for the National Weather Service, Donald Witten, said yesterday: “We try to do the best we can within the limitations of our equipment and the state of the atmosphere and will continue to do so.” He added that the government plans to appeal Truro’s judgment. David Hutchinson, the government’s attorney, who has maintained that the government was not at fault, could not be reached for comment yesterday.

On Nov. 21, 1980, the fishermen left Hyannis in two 50-foot lobster boats relying on a prediction of fair weather they received from the weather service. But the next day, after they reached the fishing area, they encountered a fierce storm that packed winds of 80 m.p.h. and sank one of the boats.

Four lobstermen: Gary Brown, 25, of Manomet; William Garnos, 30, of Beverly; David Berry, 20, of Marblehead; and Robert Thayer, 22, of Hamilton, perished. Garnos and Berry went down aboard the Fair Wind. A huge wave pulled Brown from behind the wheel of the Sea Fever. Thayer, also presumed drowned when the Fair Wind went down, was not represented in the suit.

The computerized data buoy had been malfunctioning most of the summer of 1980, and Truro wrote in his decision last year that the government was negligent “in failing for more than three months to make any effort to repair a data buoy whose purpose was to provide information recognized as vital to a reliable forecast.” Without that equipment, the judge said the weather service’s ability to predict storms was greatly impaired.

Latti said the government “induced the fishermen to rely on the instruments and then took it away from them.” He said the case has ramifications on such fields as aviation in which the government uses equipment to make judgments which affect the safety of airline passengers, crew and civilians.

The parents of William Garnos, who came to Latti’s office yesterday, said the award, which came on what would have been William’s 35th birthday, was a bittersweet conclusion to their loss. Angelo Garnos, 64, a semiretired typewriter repairman, said: “Knowing my son as I did as the skipper of the craft, if he had known that there would be a storm, he wouldn’t have gone out there.”

Of the money, Garnos said: “It really doesn’t bring back anything … We’ll just make the best of it. It will be a help.” His wife, Helen, 59, said she was “happy and sad” as she fought back tears.

The judge divided the $1.25 million award according to the suffering and damages victims’ families incurred.

Honour Brown Ferris, the widow of Gary Brown, was awarded $689,257 for herself and as a representative of her husband’s estate and $94,331 on behalf of her 4-year-old daughter Cary.

The Garnoses won $412,166 because their son gave them money for their support and, not long before his death, had purchased a home in Beverly for himself and his parents. The couple still live there and have assumed the mortgage payments.

George Berry, the father of David Berry, will receive $59,651.