- The federal government will pay about $21 million to
the families of four people who drowned off Sullivan's Island in 1997,
ending a four-year legal fight and another chapter in the sad story of
the sailboat Morning Dew.
- "The loss for both of these families has been so
dramatic and emotional," said attorney Gedney M. Howe III. "It's
great that it's over and that they can heal and move on, hopefully in a
- U.S. District Court Judge David Norton awarded $19 million
to the families last year. The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the
ruling last April, and the government had until midnight Tuesday to take
the matter to the U.S. Supreme Court or ask the Fourth Circuit to reconsider.
- "We decided not to appeal, so it's over," said
Charles Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department. The Treasury Department
has a special fund to pay judgments, so the $19 million award will not
affect the Coast Guard's budget, Miller added. The Coast Guard had no comment.
- Howe said that in addition to the $19 million, the families
would get an additional $2 million in interest earned while the case was
on appeal. The case, he said, "has been a long book with a lot of
chapters, and this is the last one."
- The story began in the early morning hours of Dec. 29,
1997, as Michael Cornett, 49, a respected country music figure from Hiltons,
Va., sailed off the coast with his two sons, Michael Paul, 16, Daniel,
13, and their cousin, Bobby Lee Hurd, 14, of Mountain City, Tenn.
- During a trial two years ago, evidence showed that the
34-foot sailboat collided with the jetties_ outside Charleston Harbor on
that blustery night. Cornett probably was on deck at the time and fell
overboard while the children slept down below. As the boat foundered, Daniel,
the 13-year-old, managed to radio a mayday at 2:17 a.m., but a Coast Guard
watch stander wasn't able to decipher the message and thought it was a
- Four hours later, a crewman on an inbound container ship
reported screams from the water. A harbor pilot notified the Coast Guard,
but no rescue mission was launched. The boys survived after the wreck but
died trying to _make it to shore at Sullivan's_Island.
- In his order after the trial, Norton wrote, "All
three children endured severe emotional distress in seeing the lights of
passing boats, their proximity to Sullivan's Island and the fading hope
of rescue, all while being slowly forced into the cold waters of the Atlantic
with little clothing or lifesaving equipment."
- Libby Cornett, mother of Daniel and Michael, testified
during the trial that, "It has tormented me, knowing they were out
there all those hours. What had they been thinking? Were they afraid? Did
they know they were going to die?"
- Referring to Cornett's testimony, Norton said her "suffering,
sorrow, pain, emptiness and grief is unbearable. Ms. Cornett's loss is
amplified by the fact that she home-schooled her children and spent more
time with her children than the average parent. The untimely deaths of
her beloved children have essentially left her lifeless."
- Norton ruled that she should receive $6.3 million in
damages for each child. He said $6.3 million should be awarded to the parents
of Bobby Lee Hurd, who testified that their son was the center of their
lives. He did not award damages for the death of Michael Cornett, saying
that he probably drowned before he could have been rescued.
- "The families are still grieving and looking for
a positive thread to arrive in the grief process," Howe said, adding
that he thinks the case prompted the Coast Guard to improve its operations.
"Many friends have said there has been a noticeable difference in
the attitude and response of the local Coast Guard, so I think this case
sure has helped the average boater in this community."
- The Morning Dew incident triggered a nationwide review
of Coast Guard rescue policies. The National Transportation Safety Board
investigated and found Cornett's failure "to adequately assess, prepare
for and respond to the known risks" of an open ocean voyage was the
probable cause of the sailboat wreck, but that Coast Guard's response was
"substandard." The board made 16 safety recommendations to the
- The Coast Guard also did a top-level internal review,
bought new equipment and tightened its search and rescue procedures.
- "The lessons learned from the Morning Dew case,"
a Coast Guard admiral said, "will live on for many years to remind
mariners and the Coast Guard alike of the dangers of the sea and need for
constant vigilance against its hazards."
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