The parents of John Steve Catilo, the 20-year-old college student and crew coach who drowned in the Potomac River last summer after falling out of a coach's launch, have sued the Alexandria Crew Boosters, the organization for which their son worked.
In a wrongful death lawsuit filed in April in D.C. Superior Court, Maria Aurora Catilo and Alejandro Catilo of Alexandria are seeking compensatory and punitive damages. The suit alleges, among other things, that the organization did not provide adequate safety training for its summer coaches and "blatantly disregarded" safety rules for boating on the Potomac. It also alleges that a device that stops an outboard motor when someone falls overboard had been disabled intentionally.
According to the suit, John Catilo, a premed student at the University of Virginia, fell overboard June 25, 2004, while trying to restart the motor on his launch. He was coaching a group of 13- and 14-year-old beginning rowers who were on the river for the first time.
He resurfaced at least twice before disappearing. His body was found two days later two miles downstream, the suit said. It said that besides Catilo, "the only Club people on the river were the frightened teenage novice rowers who watched in horror as their coach drowned."
After the accident, police said a life jacket would have prevented Catilo's death.
Bruce J. Klores, an attorney for the family, said that the boat had no life jackets and that the toggle switch on the motor had been disabled and the key stored at the club's boathouse. "When he fell overboard, the boat kept putting away from him," Klores said.
"I think the family feels, appropriately, that [the crew club] killed their son," he said.
Robert L. Ferguson Jr., an attorney for the Crew Boosters, said that the organization was not liable for Catilo's death but added that he could not comment on details of the case.
"It's a tragedy for everyone involved, and our sympathies go out to the family," he said.
Ferguson declined to discuss whether the organization carries liability insurance, but Lee West, an officer with the National Capitol Area Scholastic Rowing Association, said all area crew booster clubs are incorporated as nonprofit entities and insured as organizations.
Rowers in Alexandria form a tightly knit community in which several siblings -- and generations -- of a family often participate. In high school, Catilo had been on the T.C. Williams High School crew team, as had his older brother, Paolo.
His parents, who emigrated from the Philippines when Catilo was 3, were less connected with the world of rowing, although in the days after the accident, members of the rowing community visited them, cooked for them and helped plan the memorial service and funeral.
Klores said the family tried to reach a settlement with the Crew Boosters before filing the suit. The suit was filed in the D.C. court because the city has jurisdiction over the part of the river where Catilo drowned.
West, who is regatta director of the Occoquan Reservoir at Sandy Run Regional Park, said each private club has its own safety rules. She said that most Washington area coaches always wear life jackets and that most boats have working kill switches.
"Since this unfortunate incident, more have been wearing" jackets, she said. "I think it brought it home to them." At the Sandy Run rowing facility, the park manager pulls coaches off the water if they are not wearing life jackets, she said.
Still, West said, a small percentage of coaches do not wear them. "In every organization, you're going to have people who think they're invincible," she said.
Debbie Wells, president of the Crew Boosters, declined to comment on the case. A statement and a letter posted on the organization's Web site a few days after the accident announced a "comprehensive review" of safety rules and said that coaches would be required to wear floatation devices.
Catilo, who had completed his junior year at U-Va., had hoped to become a surgeon; the damages requested in the suit include compensation for projected income.
Barring a settlement, a trial would begin next summer or fall, Klores said.