United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Brunswick Division
MEGAN HOLMES, Individually and as Administrator of the Estate of Cathy Jo Holmes, Plaintiff,
JOSEPH PARKER, Defendant.
LISA GODBEY WOOD, Chief District Judge.
This case arises out of a tragic boating accident that claimed the life of Cathy Jo Holmes in the predawn moments of July 12, 2009, in the waters near Jekyll Island, Georgia. On July 10, 2014, the Court conducted a one-day bench trial involving Plaintiff and Defendant Joseph Parker.
The parties dispute who was at the helm of the boat when the accident occurred. Plaintiff contends Parker was driving the boat at the time of the accident; Parker contends it was Holmes, the Decedent. There were three people on the boat at the time of the accident. One testified (Parker), one could not (the Decedent), and one did not (William Turner).
After hearing all of the testimony and considering all of the evidence, the Court makes the following findings of fact and conclusions of law pursuant to Rule 52 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.
I. Findings of Fact
The Plaintiff called Christopher Hodge as a witness. Hodge was employed in the Law Enforcement Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. He took a leading role in the investigation of the July 12, 2009 accident. (Tr. 13-18)
As a part of his investigation, Hodge spoke with the two surviving occupants of the boat: Defendant Joseph Parker, who owned the 23-foot Pro-Line motorboat, and William Turner, a passenger. Hodge also interviewed individuals who had seen the boating party earlier in the evening, including Layton Johns and Don Drury. Additionally, Hodge investigated the scene of the accident and the boat. (Tr. 20-22).
Hodge spoke with Parker at the hospital not long after the accident. Parker told Hodge that Holmes had been driving the boat at the time of the accident. (Tr. 59). Parker's injuries included eight broken ribs, extensive bruising and a dislocated elbow. (Tr. 45, 84; Pl.'s Ex. 4).
Hodge studied the injuries to Holmes' body. She suffered a head gash, broken teeth, injuries to her nose, bruises to her shoulder, torn flesh above her breast and hand injuries. The cause of her death was drowning. (Tr. 64-69)
Hodge interviewed Turner who told Hodge that, over the course of the night, both Parker and Holmes drove the boat. (Tr. 60) Although Turner was on the boat at the time of the accident, he was in a rear-facing seat and unable to say who was driving at the time of the accident. (Tr. 26, 60; Pl.'s Ex. 2A). Other people at a pre-accident party on Raccoon Key, such as Layton Johns and Don Drury, saw Parker drive the boat earlier, but they were not present to witness who was at the helm at the time of the accident. (Tr. 21-22)
Parker's medical records indicated the presence of alcohol in his system, along with cocaine and marijuana. (Tr. 52-55; Pl.'s Ex. 31). Holmes' records were negative for the presence of alcohol but positive for cocaine and hydrocodone. (Tr. 53). A pipe and a small bag containing a green, leafy substance were found on board the boat. (Tr. 25).
Ultimately, Hodge was unable to determine through physical evidence who was driving the boat at the time of the accident. (Tr. 23-24)
Although he was unable to determine through physical evidence who was driving the boat, Hodge believes the cause of the accident was operator inattention, whoever that operator was. (Tr. 23).
Hodge noticed three different kinds of rope of varying sizes wrapped around the propeller of the boat after the accident occurred. (Tr. 38-39)
Hodge does not believe the ropes caused the accident, nor does he believe the boat hit a crab trap line, causing it to jerk. Hodge testified that some of the lines on the propeller could have been the same size as a crab line, but some were similar to the lines found on Parker's boat. Additionally, some of the lines on the propeller had hand-tied loops, and they did not appear to have been in the water for long. No crab traps were found in the vicinity, and the lines were loosely wrapped around the propeller. Accordingly, Hodge concludes that the lines reached the propeller after the accident and came from Parker's boat. (Tr. 38-43)
The Plaintiff called Defendant Joseph Parker for the purpose of cross-examination. Additionally, Parker testified on direct examination as the sole witness called by the defense. Parker provided the only eyewitness trial testimony of what happened immediately before, during and after the accident.
According to Parker, he and Cathy Holmes lived together at his home in Brunswick, Georgia, out of which Holmes conducted a very successful title search business. (Tr. 104)
On the evening of July 11, 2009, Parker and Holmes boarded Parker's boat at the Brunswick Landing Marina at approximately 6:00 p.m. to go shark fishing off of Raccoon Key, a private island. Parker drove the boat, and they arrived at Raccoon Key around 7:00 p.m. that evening. (Tr. 104-107).
Alcohol was served at Raccoon Key, but there was no evidence that Parker witnessed Cathy Holmes drinking or ingesting drugs near the time of ...