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Lawsuit claims charter boat captain was improperly licensed, negligent at time of two deaths near St. Pete Beach

Pinellas Sheriff officers and U.S. Coast Guard personnel search for Jie Luo and Andrew Dillman off of Pass-A- Grille in the Pass-A-Grille Channel on March 15. [SCOTT KEELER | Times]
Published Dec. 6, 2017

The family of the 21-year-old who died after jumping into the gulf from a charter boat in March is suing, saying inaction and inexperience caused the death of their son and the boat employee who tried to save him.

In a lawsuit filed in Pinellas County, the family's attorneys say Capt. Todd Davis did not have the proper license, failed to warn his passengers of potential dangers, did not go over safety equipment or what to do in an emergency and gave the Coast Guard incorrect information that delayed search efforts.

The family is also suing Patrick Dines of St. Petersburg. His company, Florida Yachts Charter, brokered the charter; the suit alleges he allowed Davis to operate boats without the proper experience.

On March 14, Jie Luo and 14 friends boarded the Jaguar for a sunset cruise, according to the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office. Bad weather kept them from their destination of Shell Key.

"The channel Captain Davis chose to anchor in and allow his passengers to jump off of the vessel (was) extremely hazardous and unsafe .?.?. all of which were clearly known and foreseeable," the lawsuit says.

Luo, a Chinese student studying at Colorado State University, grew fatigued after jumping off the boat a third time. Charter boat employee Andrew Dillman, 27, jumped in after him without a flotation device.

It was not immediately clear which type of Coast Guard credentials Davis has, but Coast Guard spokesman Michael De Nyse said the agency has not "initiated suspension or revocations" against them at this time.

"The tragedy surrounding the loss of life from the Jaguar is still under investigation," he said.

But captains packing boats with more passengers than their credentials allow has been an ongoing problem across the country as well as in Tampa Bay, according a November Tampa Bay Times investigation into the charter boat industry.

Area captains had complained about the Jaguar and other boats that did not seem to be following the rules for years, according to the Times report.

Capt. Dan Peretz worried someone could get seriously hurt or die.

"(Davis) should have never dropped that anchor in that situation because of the weather conditions," said Peretz, who owns the charter boat company Dolphin Landings. "It was blowing really hard and there were swells coming in."

The Nov. 29 lawsuit says Davis failed to have proper lookouts while people were in the water and did not immediately pull up the boat's anchor to search for Luo or Dillman.

The lawsuit further claims that Davis didn't properly "mark" the last place either man was seen, took too long to contact the Coast Guard and other authorities and misreported facts of what happened to investigators.

Both men's bodies were found days after an exhaustive search and rescue mission.

The college students found the Jaguar online through the company Florida Yachts Charter.

In a letter to the Times last month, the company said that as a bare-boat charter, the safety of the passengers was the responsibility of the college student who chartered the boat.

Luo's parents, Zhongqun Lu and Lieping Luo, live in China and have a Tampa woman representing their estate in court. She could not immediately be reached for comment.

Davis, who runs a bow-fishing trip business out of Pasco County, did not return phone calls for the November story nor did he return a phone call Wednesday morning regarding the lawsuit.

When the owner of the charter company, Dines, was asked about the lawsuit by phone he said he could not comment.

"My attorney said that's not a wise thing to do," he said.

Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Sara DiNatale at sdinatale@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8862. Follow @sara_dinatale.

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