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New lawsuits filed against town, local marina following 2019 fatal boat crash

In a pair of new lawsuits filed in the wake of a 2019 boating accident that killed one person in Mattituck, the two men who were aboard the vessel are suing Southold Town and a local marina, arguing in a legal filing that their negligence contributed to the crash.

The $30 million notice of claim filed Feb. 8 by Frank Distefano, the East Northport man who was operating the powerboat that ran aground and struck a bulkhead near the entrance to James Creek, alleges that Strong’s Marine “negligently entrusted” the 39-foot Cobalt to Mr. Distefano “without adequate training, guidance, support” related to piloting the boat.

It further claims that Strong’s Marine and James McCahill, which the claim says are both owners of the boat, failed to adequately maintain and repair the boat, specifically by improperly installing a replacement engine, negligently installing a navigation system and failing to maintain the autopilot system, which created a “dangerous and defective condition” that they failed to warn Mr. Distefano about.

The crash claimed the life of 27-year-old Kelley Blanchard of Riverhead and injured Mr. Distefano and his passengers, Nicholas Soullas of Jamesport and Ms. Blanchard’s sister Megan, of New Suffolk. 

In his notice, Mr. Distefano also alleges that the town and police department made “libelous, false statements” about him that “reflected negatively” on his character and integrity.

Mr. Distefano initially faced a boating while intoxicated charge that was ultimately dismissed after a toxicology report showed he did not have a blood alcohol content above the legal threshold to warrant a criminal charge.

The claim, filed by Mr. Distefano pro-se, or representing himself, mirrors a similar claim he filed in February 2020, alleging that the town “negligently maintained or failed to maintain the navigational aids, buoys and marine markers” near the entrance to James Creek. He’s seeking $30 million in damages, citing physical injuries, lost wages and mental anguish.

Once a notice of claim is filed in New York State, plaintiffs typically have a one-year time frame to file a formal lawsuit.

A second $25 million claim filed by Mr. Soullas through his attorney, Frank Blangiardo, makes the same claims, but also lists Mr. Distefano as a defendant.

In the legal filing, Mr. Soullas claims Mr. Distefano was negligently operating and “failed to adequately control” the vessel, leading to the Nov. 10 crash.

Southold town attorney Bill Duffy denied allegations of negligence on the town’s behalf. “At the end of the day, there will be no liability against the town,” he said.

Strong’s Marine owner Jeff Strong also denied wrongdoing. “It is unfortunate that our society has become so litigious, suing innocent people in lieu of accepting personal responsibility,” he said.